The Board of Regents for Maryland's public university system approved its first midyear tuition increases in a decade yesterday, highlighting what some observers see as a "feast-famine" cycle in the way states fund higher education.
The tuition surcharges of up to 5 percent for the semester that starts next week will vary from campus to campus, averaging $90 for undergraduates from Maryland and $260 for students from outside the state. But as they carry over to the next academic year, the surcharges will combine with previously planned increases to create a one-year increase of about 9 percent -- the largest since the early 1990s.
The decision marked the final blow to a five-year effort to limit tuition increases at Maryland's public colleges and universities to about the rate of inflation. And it echoed the actions of several other states, which imposed tuition freezes or caps in the 1990s only to abandon them last year when the sinking national economy dried up state appropriations.
In Virginia, a six-year tuition freeze ended last year with legislators allowing colleges to raise tuition and fees an average of 11 percent. After holding the line on tuition since 1995, trustees of the State University of New York are seeking a 41 percent increase. Other states are similarly rolling out double-digit rate increases.
"Students feel like they've been hit between the eyes with a board when they see these increases," said Travis Reindl, a policy analyst with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "There have got to be ways to smooth out these peaks and valleys."
College officials lay the blame on state leaders who have steadily reduced their share of higher education costs, forcing campuses to play catch-up through tuition, they said. In Maryland, state funding has declined from 42 percent of the university system operating budgets in 1991 to 28 percent this year. At George Mason University in Fairfax, the state's share of support shrank from 35 percent to 25 percent in two years.
"The public policy implications are not good," said GMU President Alan G. Merten. "We're now saying the state has less and less responsibility for providing higher education to its citizens."
Maryland regents said they had little choice but to drop the unofficial 4 percent limit that governed their tuition increases after a political backlash against high costs in 1997. They took a first small step away from the cap last year when they raised tuitions by 5.5 percent.
After several years of substantial funding increases in Maryland, campus appropriations were essentially frozen last year at $867 million, then cut by $66 million in recent weeks to help bridge a widening state deficit. In response, campuses imposed a hiring freeze, eliminated 198 unfilled slots, cut miscellaneous expenses and drew from their reserves -- a move that officials said threatens to lower the universities' bond ratings.
Even with the new tuition increases, regents warned that they may still have to delay the opening of new buildings, increase class sizes, scale back student services and furlough employees for a few days this spring. But without any tuition increases, officials said they would have had to eliminate a couple hundred more positions, many through layoffs.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed 2004 budget would freeze university system funding at its newly reduced level of $800 million. If the legislature cuts it further, regents said they may be forced to consider even steeper increases than the roughly 9 percent now planned for next year.
Virginia officials said they will almost certainly seek higher tuition for next year, though it remains unclear how much. But as colleges seek to make up for state budget cuts through tuition increases, they will eventually face the same kind of backlash that led to tuition caps and freezes a few years ago, warned David Breneman, dean of the education school at the University of Virginia.
"Public institutions get into a sort of a rope-a-dope game with governors," he said. "When times are tough and the states cut the budget, everybody bends over backwards to let higher-ed raise their tuitions. Then there's a political outcry about the cost, and the next governor rides in on a white horse and freezes tuition."
The result, he said, is "a crapshoot for families," who are unable to anticipate what tuition may cost when their children are ready to go to college. States, he said, "need to think longer-term" about higher education financing.
In Maryland, university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he is aiming to do just that, with a new task force studying strategies for setting tuition policy over the next decade. For now, the regents ordered campuses to offer students flexibility in paying for the new surcharge and to devote 15 percent of the revenue to easing the burden on needy students.
Only two of the 11 degree-granting institutions in the university system did not increase tuition. Officials said Coppin State College has too many low-income students to absorb an increase, while the University of Maryland University College -- specializing in part-time and online courses -- was able to find savings elsewhere.