Even as Howard Community College officials recently approved a $4 per credit hour tuition rise for the fall, they warned that further increases are possible in the coming months.

That could happen, they said, if the college's share of state and county funds further plunges as enrollment continues to rise rapidly.

"It would be a last resort," said Roger N. Caplan, chairman of HCC's board of trustees. "We don't want to compromise the excellence we have. If we do that, that's a dangerous precedent."

Last week, the board approved raising tuition from $86 to $90 per credit hour after July 1. It's the second increase in a year, bringing tuition 11 percent above the $81 per credit hour set in 1998. With the latest increase, the tuition for a full-time HCC student taking 15 credit hours per semester will be $2,700 a year.

The increases are part of a proposed $47.2 million operating budget in which HCC seeks nearly 14 percent more from the county, from $13.8 million to $15.7 million next year.

President Mary Ellen Duncan said if the county government can't provide the sizable increase HCC is seeking for next year, the college may have to consider another tuition increase or slash spending.

"You can always make cuts. People have to be ready to do that in this economy," Duncan said. "But when the money goes away, it's very hard to do what the community asks you to do."

Because of Maryland's shrinking revenue, HCC took a 4 percent cut in this year's state appropriation, which is expected to remain at $8.1 million for the next budget year. As a result, HCC is deferring furniture and equipment purchases.

Caplan said the cuts could foreshadow the state's abandonment of its recent commitment to better fund community colleges.

"We're afraid we're on this slippery slope going down the mountain again," he said. "We now have to take an aggressive posture on our funding."

Duncan said she must accommodate the college's growing enrollment, which is expected to climb 8 percent this fall from last year's 6,200 students.

"The number one priority is hiring more faculty," said Duncan, who wants to add five full-time positions to the teaching ranks. "There's absolutely no way around that. You can suffer everything else."

Meanwhile, community colleges across the state are ready to increase tuition. Together, their expanding campuses draw 53 percent of all undergraduates in Maryland, said Anthony G. Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

"The issue is our growth," he said. "How do we pay for all those new faces staring at us in the classrooms?"

During a recent meeting, community college presidents reported that they're contemplating tuition increases of 10 percent to 15 percent by fall, Kinkel said. Tuition covers 40 percent of the cost of educating community college students, with county and state appropriations providing the remainder.

Administrators know that community college students often must work to pay their way through school and often have young children to support.

"That's why it's so painful for the presidents to make this difficult decision," Kinkel said. "It's only after every other option is exhausted."

Although there's little chance more state money can be found for community colleges in the next budget year, college officials are pressing their case with the General Assembly for more state aid in 2004-05, Kinkel said.

"Invest in things you can get a good return on," he said. "Clearly, that's community colleges."