Facing an executive order to batten down the hatches against fiscal disaster, the university of Maryland Board of Regents approved a plan last week that would raise tuition for the coming school year by a least 23 percent and could increase it as much as 42 percent.

Just how much tuition will go up depends on the amount of tax support Gov. Harry Hughes decides to cut from the university in light of a projected economic slump.

Preparing for expected revenue shortages, Hughes last month ordered all state institutions, including the university, to revise their budgets for next year to allow for 4, 7 and 9 percent cutbacks in state support. Hughes also told each state agency to return 3 percent of the money it had already been given for this year.

Though other state colleges have raised their spring tuitions to meet that 3 percent return, Maryland's Board of Regents instead trimmed close to $5 million from administration, maintenance and other ongoing programs.

Rather than cut those programs further next year, however, the regents approved what could turn out to be the highest tuition increase in the school's history.

The most severe case -- a 9 percent cutback in state support -- would raise annual tuition and mandatory fees at the university's main campus in College Park to $1,203 from $884, and at the Baltimore County campus to $1,158 from $855.

The lowest projected cutback of state funding -- 4 percent -- would still raise tuition and mandatory fees to $1,073 at College Park and $928 at Baltimore County -- an increase of 23 percent.

The regents passed similar hikes at the university's Baltimore City and Eastern Shore campuses.

Several regents, including former acting governor Blair Lee III, said the chance that state funds will shrink by 9 percent is "unreal."

"I won't say those people in Annapolis are paranoid," Lee said, "but they overreacted a little."

The regents decided to send with their budget a letter urging Hughes to spare the university's funding from what they called "devastating effects."

"I don't know how we're going to get people to believe there is no more give in our belt," said College Park Chancellor Robert Gluckstern.

Student leaders from College Park and Baltimore pleaded with regents at the Baltimore meeting not to pass higher tuition rates that the students said would make them pay "more for less." But even those students joined the regents in mourning what one called "drastic alternatives."

University President John S. Toll said he will ask the state legislature to turn 30 percent of the tuition increase back into student aid programs. Federal basic education opportunity grants (BEOG) would help absorb some of the tuition increase, Toll said. But he added that about half of any increase would have to come from the pockets of students and their families.

William P. Hytche, chancellor of the university's predominantly black Eastern Shore campus, said when student aid money ran out in June, there were still 129 students eligible for full assistance, "and we couldn't give them a dine."

"I think (the increase) is certainly going to affect a lot of low-income students unless we are able to help supplement their financial aid," Hytche said.

Some of the 31,000 undergraduates at the university's massive College Park campus could be forced to change their college plans.

"If they hit me with the highest raise, I might not be able to come back," said Mitchell Freelander, a freshman zoology major.

"I'm glad I'm getting out here," said Paul Urban, a government and politics major who plans to graduate before the increases can go into effect next fall. "It's really getting to be a rip-off."