The news that University System of Maryland schools will increase tuition by 5 percent next academic year — and in some cases by more than that — is doubtless unwelcome for students and their parents. A college education is expensive as it is, particularly given that good jobs are no longer guaranteed upon graduation.
But the increase has to be considered in context, as it comes after a long period in which tuition remained flat or increased only slightly. According to figures from the College Board, average tuition and fees in the system's schools increased by just 7 percent during the last decade when adjusted for inflation, a time when the national average increased by 42 percent. At a time when most states were dropping support for higher education because of the recession, Maryland stood out for holding the line — thanks in no small part to former Gov. Martin O'Malley's commitment to keeping tuition increases low.
The question is what happens now. A 5 percent increase next year may not be the end of the world, but 5 percent or more every year would seriously jeopardize the progress Maryland has made. Given that one of the state's biggest competitive advantages is its highly educated workforce, that's something we cannot afford. Mr. O'Malley is gone, and he has been replaced by Gov. Larry Hogan. Will the new governor follow in his predecessor's footsteps, or will he hew to the philosophy of Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who oversaw a 40 percent increase in tuition in four years?
It's too early to tell for certain, but the rhetoric coming out of the Hogan administration sounds a lot closer to Mr. O'Malley's position than Mr. Ehrlich's. Despite his tuition increases, Mr. Ehrlich liked to brag that the University of Maryland remained "the best deal in the universe." One of his appointees to the University System Board of Regents said tuition should double. By contrast, a spokesman for Mr. Hogan said this week that the governor is "concerned about the growing cost of a college education." More to the point, Mr. Hogan so far has only two appointees sitting on the Board of Regents, and both voted against the tuition increase for next year.
Indeed, the 5 percent was not Mr. Hogan's idea in the first place. For the last several years, the system has submitted a budget request that assumed a 5 percent tuition increase, and Mr. O'Malley always found extra money in the general fund to reduce it. Until last fall, that is. He made clear that no extra funds would be available, and he then compounded the issue by cutting the system's current budget by $40 million in January. Mr. Hogan, who took office later that month, more or less stuck to his predecessor's plan. Could Mr. Hogan have done more to limit tuition increases? Perhaps, though it would have been difficult given the fiscal constraints he was working with. But he definitely could have shifted money in the budget to make them larger — as Mr. Ehrlich did in his first year in office, leading to a 22 percent tuition increase — and he didn't.
There are early indications, though, that if Mr. Hogan tries to limit tuition increases, he'll be more apt to do it by pressuring the system to control costs than his predecessor was. Mr. Hogan has been sharply critical of cost overruns on capital projects at the university system, and system officials acknowledge the need to do their part to control expenses. USM recently launched a new version of its Effectiveness and Efficiency initiative, with an aim to go beyond previous efforts to tighten up existing operations and to find new ways to provide high quality education at lower cost.
During this week's regents meeting, the University of Maryland College Park adopted a different sort of innovation, and one that gives us pause. For the first time, it will charge more for certain high-demand majors — business, engineering and computer science. There is some logic to the move, in that providing highly competitive programs in those fields costs more than other disciplines, and as it is, those departments are turning away students because they don't have room for them all. Many other universities have variable charges for different majors, and College Park's plan is better than most in that the higher charges would only apply to juniors and seniors, and the money would be dedicated to increasing enrollment capacity and need-based financial aid.
Nonetheless, there is a larger strategic consideration at play for the state. We have yet to hear anyone complain that we have too many people trained in those fields; quite the contrary, we need more of them if Maryland's economy is to thrive. Given Governor Hogan's desire to increase private sector economic development, we hope he will make the investments necessary to avoid such additional fees in the future.