Community colleges in Maryland, which are increasingly the schools of choice for many residents, are bracing for another round of tuition and fee increases as the state faces a severe budget crisis.

Maryland's 16 community colleges got less money than they expected from the state in the past fiscal year. Now, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) wants to cut spending for the colleges by $9.7 million this fiscal year -- or 4 percent of the $242 million that had been set aside for the schools -- because of Maryland's projected budget gap of nearly $1.8 billion during the next 17 months. The governor proposes to hold spending at that reduced level for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

That would reduce college funding to 2001 levels, according to Anthony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. He said it could spur tuition increases of $3 to $8 a course credit at community colleges, where tuition now ranges generally between $75 and $85 a credit. Fees also could increase, Kinkel said.

The impact could go well beyond what students pay, he 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.

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."

Overall, enrollments are up 6 percent this year, to 114,702 students attending Maryland community colleges. Last fall, 40 percent of all Maryland college freshmen were enrolled in 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.

Montgomery College raised tuition $5 a credit hour last year and had already projected 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.

Another factor is how much money counties contribute to community colleges. Many jurisdictions, with money problems of their own, are still grappling with budgets for next fiscal year.

Montgomery County, for instance, 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," Nunley said. "We believe Montgomery County will give consideration to our circumstances, but their own budget is a very difficult one."

Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, said he is also 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.

That college has also grown, by 8 percent this year, to 37,000 students signed up for credit and non-credit classes.

"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." Also, he said, "we've added 35,000 square feet of temporary space. That problem is becoming more severe for us as we look at the increasing enrollment."

Things aren't any better at the College of Southern Maryland -- with campuses in La Plata, Leonardtown and Prince Frederick -- where spring enrollment is up 6 percent to 6,800 for-credit students.

Last year's spending curbs on community colleges cost Southern Maryland $940,000, resulting in a $6 increase a credit hour, to $81. Next fall's tuition won't be set until May, but officials expect another increase.

"We've [already] been cutting budgets in '03," President Elaine Ryan said. "Sixteen positions are frozen right now. We've been cutting everywhere we can. There will be no new initiatives next year because we don't have the money. We'll have students looking for classes that won't be available."

At Howard Community College in Columbia, spring enrollment is up 8 percent, to 6,000 for-credit students, and officials are contemplating another tuition increase, as yet undetermined, from the current $86 a credit hour.

"Everyone feels that's the last thing to do, yet it's hard to provide without doing it in this environment," said Mary Ellen Duncan, president of the college. "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."

Said Kinkel, the association director: "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."