Maryland's community colleges, increasingly the schools of choice for many residents, are bracing for spending cuts and another round of tuition increases as the state faces a $1.8 billion deficit during the next 17 months.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) wants to cut spending for the 16 community colleges by $9.7 million this fiscal year -- or 4 percent of the $242 million that had been set aside for the two-year schools. The governor also wants to hold spending at that reduced level for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Earlier this year, before the proposed state cuts were revealed, the Howard Community College board of trustees voted to raise tuition $4 a credit hour July 1, from $86 to $90. The tuition for a full-time HCC student taking 15 credit hours per semester will be $2,700 a year.

But even as the board okayed the second increase in a year, it warned that further state and county budget cuts could mean another tuition increase.

"Everyone feels that's the last thing to do, yet it's hard to provide without doing it in this environment," Mary Ellen Duncan, president of the college, said last week. "We just hope this is just short-lived, and it doesn't go on, and we don't continue this reverse trend for very long."

Anthony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said the budget cuts could spur tuition increases of $3 to $8 a course credit at other community colleges, where tuition now ranges generally between $75 and $85 a credit. Fees also could increase, he said.

But the impact of state budget cuts could go well beyond what students pay, Kinkel said. Class sections could be eliminated, leading to crowded classes. Adjunct professors could be let go and faculty vacancies left unfilled -- all at a time when community college enrollments are soaring.

"We're very careful not to whine," Kinkel said. "Having said that, there are the makings of a perfect storm out there."

The storm picked up in intensity last week as 250 students from across the state traveled to Annapolis to protest and to lobby legislators on behalf of their schools. Ehrlich spoke with them for 20 minutes. The governor expressed sympathy but emphasized the state's broader budget problems.

State and county funding, along with student tuition and fees, traditionally have been the primary source of funding for community colleges. As their expanding enrollments collide with pinched government budgets, some community colleges, such as HCC, also are seeking private financial backing to support major building programs, such as the one now underway at the Columbia campus.

But the cutback in state funds could threaten projects such as HCC's $19 million visual and performing arts building. College officials hoped to break ground on the building this summer.

Currently, 54 percent of Maryland's college-bound high school graduates enroll in community colleges, and that number is growing. "We've got to plan for 20,000 more students in 10 years," Kinkel said. "That's the equivalent of four more Howard County Community Colleges."

Officials attribute the rising enrollments to several factors, including higher tuitions at four-year public and private colleges and a swelling of high school ranks resulting in more college-bound graduates.

"We're at the point where our funding, even with increasing tuition and fairly consistent support from the counties, is not keeping up with our growth, and that's really the issue for us," Kinkel said.

At Howard Community College, enrollment is expected to climb 8 percent this fall from last year's 6,200 for-credit students. A top priority, Duncan said, is hiring five new full-time faculty members.

In its proposed $47.2 million operating budget for the next fiscal year, HCC is seeking nearly 14 percent more from the county, from $13.8 million to $15.7 million. But just how much money Howard and other community colleges will receive from their local governments is uncertain, as counties throughout Maryland grapple with tight budgets for the next fiscal year.

Howard is not the only college that has raised tuition already. Montgomery College, which increased tuition $5 a credit hour last year, is predicting another $5 increase, from $79 to $84. That's without taking into account Ehrlich's planned cuts this year.

"There's no easy option for addressing this," said Charlene R. Nunley, president of the three-campus Montgomery community college.

Montgomery County is facing a revenue shortfall of at least $300 million, and Nunley said the county has asked the college to reduce its budget by 3 percent in the current year.

"We're pleading with them to count the state aid reduction against the 3 percent they've already asked us to take," he said.

Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, said he is awaiting his county's funding decision before deciding how much tuition will rise. "Six dollars is kind of a guess at this point," said Williams, whose school now charges $75 a credit hour.

"I'm having real problems hiring the required part-time faculty to cover the classes," Williams said. "I don't have money to pay for them." He also said the school has added 35,000 square feet of temporary space. "That problem is becoming more severe for us as we look at the increasing enrollment."

Kinkel, the association director, said the budget cuts threaten to undermine the mission of community colleges.

"We pride ourselves on being open-access. We accept anybody with a GED [general equivalency diploma] or a high school diploma. We try to give them hope and improve their lives. We have to maintain that mission. That's what makes community colleges special."

Ann Goldscher, assistant to Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), talks with students from Howard Community College as they and other students visited with state delegates and senators during an advocacy day program in Annapolis last week.