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University of Maryland affordability: Make financial aid a top priority | COMMENTARY

A stylized State Seal on the gates of the University of Maryland, College Park on Campus Drive, Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun staff. 2018
A stylized State Seal on the gates of the University of Maryland, College Park on Campus Drive, Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun staff. 2018 (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

The University of Maryland, College Park dispatched word this week that perhaps 20% of undergraduate classes will be conducted in person, at least to some degree, this fall. Which ones? Good question, class. Students won’t know for certain until July 15, and for those who have reserved on-campus housing, they’ll just have 48 hours to withdraw penalty-free (a likely cost-saving move for students facing a full virtual schedule). Still, that’s a relatively minor gripe in the midst of a global pandemic. The bigger beef heard from the student community is a more fundamental one: Why should families have to pay full freight tuition when they are getting a product that is demonstrably less than what they’ve received in the past?

Last month, the University System of Maryland announced that all state schools will be freezing tuition, and we applaud the move given the severe economic downturn wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak. We also strongly support virtual learning not just because of the high risk of transmitting the virus in a close-quarter campus bubble but with the expectation of a second wave of the pandemic in the fall that could make it seem like April all over again. Yet we must recognize that schools have financial constraints as well. Not terribly long after the ink was dry on the USM Board of Regents’ tuition freeze, the Maryland Board of Public Works was cutting the higher education budget by $186 million. And we’re going to go out on a very short limb and assume that last week’s move won’t be the last such cut (based on how the state has balanced its budgets during past economic recessions).

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Schools have fixed costs. Professors still have to be paid whether they are teaching in a classroom or on a video conference. Elite private schools have the resources to roll back tuition seven days a week and twice on Fridays if they like. Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently notified its students that not only is the school rolling back a planned tuition increase but they are awarding every student a $5,000 credit, a paid research stipend of $1,900 and a cellular-enabled iPad. Ah, the joys of a $17.5 billion endowment. Or maybe it’s a Cambridge, Mass. thing as Harvard University is throwing around $5,000 per semester COVID-19 benefits for some students as well. State university systems don’t have those kind of resources. But then the University of Maryland doesn’t charge Harvard’s kind of tuition prices either, particularly to students living in this state.

What’s most worrisome about USM’s financial situation right now is not that families are overpaying or that students are getting a lesser experience from virtual learning. Maryland’s public universities were an educational bargain before the pandemic and they remain a good value today, particularly the flagship school in College Park. The real threat is that in cutting costs, schools will reduce financial aid. And that means some students from working-class and low-income families for whom a grant is vital may drop out. Perhaps some can transfer to community colleges. Some will go deeper into debt with student loans. Others may simply be discouraged from seeking a college education entirely. And those students are more likely to represent disadvantaged racial and ethnic minorities.

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On his first day in office last week, University of Maryland President Darryll Pines announced a series of steps to improve and support diversity. They ranged from anti-racism training to providing more mental health resources on campus and retraining police. But these efforts, as appropriate as they are in the post-George Floyd social awakening, would be severely undermined if cuts to financial aid mean fewer people of color can enroll. It’s simply difficult to combat racial inequities if a school can’t first deal with financial inequality.

That’s not to suggest schools should reject reasonable cost-saving measures. Faculty and other staff can’t expect to be untouched by belt tightening. Ignoring the reality of an economic downturn isn’t a viable option. But if the choice comes down to reducing tuition and reducing financial aid, there should be no hesitation: Preserve financial aid. The pandemic should not be allowed to reverse the hard-won advancements in providing better educational opportunities to African Americans and other students of color. The University of Maryland has an important role to play in righting historic wrongs by serving more low-income and minority students than it has in the past. That mission can’t be abandoned now when it’s needed most.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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