ANNAPOLIS -- Troubled by soaring tuition, dwindling federal scholarships and the large number of students who leave college in debt, Maryland officials are proposing to help families afford higher education by subsidizing their savings.
Tuition subsidy programs are in vogue in statehouses across the nation. The Maryland version calls for the state government to add 1 percent per year to parents' savings accounts until their children are old enough for college.
The subsidy, which students could use only if they enrolled in a public or private college in Maryland, is intended to motivate more of the state's families to start saving money for college, according to a task force of educators and government officials who came up with the idea in the fall.
The plan has been endorsed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who is asking the General Assembly to approve it during the current 90-day session.
Schaefer has included $500,000 in his proposed fiscal 1989 budget to start the program next year.
But as some college administrators become more familiar with the idea, they are questioning whether the subsidy -- an average of $579 at the end of 14 years, based on estimates of U.S. families' typical college savings -- is a big enough incentive.
"It's a start, but it's not that much," said Ulysses Glee, director of financial aid at the University of Maryland at College Park.
And they say the program, while helpful to middle-class families, would be of little value to students whose parents are too poor to set aside part of their income -- that is, students who are most likely to take out big federal loans they may be unable to repay.
"I don't care how good the plan is, if you can't afford to save, it is not going to do you any good," said Donald Kiah, director of financial aid at Bowie State College, where one-third of the undergraduates come from families that earn less than $9,000 per year.
The plans' advocates concede it will not eliminate the widening gulf between colleges' price tags and students' financial means.
"I don't think anyone would try to use this as a solution to all college-cost problems," said Laslo Boyd, Schaefer's education aide. "This is basically a means to make people more sensitive to the need to save."
The plan is more modest than another college-payment strategy, known as "tuition futures," that was considered and rejected by the General Assembly last year.
That approach, which stirred excitement nationwide when Michigan became the first state to adopt it 13 months ago, allows parents to pay a lump sum into a state trust fund when their children are young. (In Michigan, the fee is $3,000 for a newborn.)
In exchange, the state promises to cover the children's full college tuition, no matter how expensive it becomes by the time they grow up.
But the idea has fallen out of favor in most states that considered it.
For one thing, the start-up of the Michigan plan and similar plans adopted during the last several months in four other states, has been delayed pending a ruling by the Internal Revenue Service on whether contributions to the fund are tax-exempt.
Many educators and lawmakers now believe the IRS may not rule on the question, which they think is central to the plan's popularity.
In addition, lawmakers have become worried that the tuition guarantee could create an enormous financial obligation for taxpayers in the future, if tuition levels increase more rapidly than the earnings on the trust fund.
"There is a lot of fear of having another savings and loan crisis, of having an unfunded liability down the road," said Maryland Sen. Paula C. Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored "tuition futures" legislation last year but now favors the savings subsidy.
The disenchantment with tuition futures, however, has not dimmed states' interest in other forms of help with college costs.
A variety of plans have been considered in 40 states, including Virginia, where legislators are debating whether to create special college savings bonds.
Such intense interest has been spurred by the fact that tuition has risen more steeply than inflation throughout the 1980s, while federal financial help, particularly in the form of outright scholarships, has diminished.
Despite this growing gap, only half the U.S. parents who expect their children to go to college are saving money for that purpose, according to a 1984 study for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The families that did save were putting aside an average of $517 per year, the study found.
This year, the average college tuition is $1,359 per year for public colleges and universities and $7,110 per year for private ones, according to the College Board. The prices in Maryland are slightly higher.
"People really have a sense college is slipping away from their kids," said Aims McGuinness Jr., assistant executive director for higher education of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"It really worries people. Any politicians who can come up with a simple plan has got a real seller."