A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge yesterday dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by Maryland public university students challenging this spring's midyear tuition increase.
Judge Stuart R. Berger ruled that the 5 percent increase approved in January for the spring semester that started just weeks later did not violate the students' rights or the terms of any contracts with the universities.
The case had carried the potential to create a major fiscal dilemma for the state university system, whose leaders passed the last-minute surcharge to help make up for a $67 million reduction in state appropriations this academic year. The increases -- ranging from $76 for in-state undergraduates to nearly $600 for some graduate students from outside the state -- are expected to generate roughly $13 million.
The seven plaintiffs -- mostly graduate students from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Baltimore -- had argued that the surcharge violated the contract established between themselves and the universities last year when the Board of Regents announced tuition rates for the 2002-03 school year. They also claimed the increase violated consumer-protection law, because they had chosen their schools based partly on cost.
But Berger ruled that the public university system was protected from the suit under the state's sovereign immunity from litigation. He also noted that the students had no written contract with the universities specifying a set tuition rate, according to John K. Anderson, an assistant state attorney general who defended the university system.
Lawyers for the students said they are strongly considering an appeal. "We thought there was an enforceable agreement between the students and the universities as to what the tuition would be for the spring," said attorney Andrew Freeman. "The judge took a very restrictive view."
Representatives of the state university system declined to comment on the ruling.
Meanwhile, state officials acknowledged that more higher-than-usual tuition increases may be on the way for the next academic year. Although the regents have not made the surcharge permanent, the state budget approved this month was built on the assumption that institutions would raise tuition by about 9 percent over the previous year.
With Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) threatening to veto a recently passed $135 million tax bill and make spending cuts to replace the lost revenue, state university officials are bracing for additional reductions in their budget for the coming academic year, which could lead to additional tuition increases.