I'm looking at a worrisome chart. You might want to look at it, too, especially if you or your child attends, or hopes to attend, a Maryland public college.

The chart shows the tuition increases that are possible if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) vetoes a bill.

House Bill 1188, which passed the General Assembly during the legislative session that adjourned last month, would limit tuition increases at Maryland's public colleges to no more than 5 percent a year. If the governor vetoes it later this month, as he has said he will, tuition will increase by as much as 10 percent, depending on the campus; that's been agreed to by the state university system's Board of Regents. The chart also reflects what additional increases might be imposed if the governor cuts spending for colleges the way he did last year.

The chart was prepared by the General Assembly's nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services at the request of state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Bethesda) and, like all projections, is based on certain assumptions. The projections could change if, say, the economy picks up. But right now, estimates are that the state will be short roughly $1 billion in the next fiscal year and that it will have to find a new revenue source or start cutting.

How cuts would affect tuition depends on the college and how the cuts are made, but one very real possibility is that tuition and fees at the flagship College Park campus could rise from a predicted $7,426 this fall to $9,638 in 2008 -- a $2,212 increase, more than double what inflation would require.

Other public colleges would experience similar, if smaller, increases, and the chart shows three as representative of the whole.

Now I should say that the governor's budget secretary, Chip DiPaula Jr., says Ehrlich has no intention of cutting the higher education budget next year or any other year. "The governor totally supports quality higher education and is working with the regents and the college presidents to accomplish that," DiPaula said. The $120 million cut last year "was a one-time cut that won't be repeated," he said.

As signs of the governor's support for higher education, DiPaula points to the hefty funding in this year's construction budget for community and four-year colleges, as well as the fact that operating funds to colleges were left intact this year.

The problem with DiPaula's assurance is that, no matter how sincere and well-meaning it is, if the state has to cut something, the governor's choices are limited. He can't cut elementary and secondary education -- the state is obligated to pay a mandatory amount. He can't cut Medicare, at least not much. But because there is no set amount that the state, by law, must pay for higher education, it is easy to make reductions there.

That's another reason HB 1188 is important: It provides a mandatory minimum payment from the state to higher education institutions, funded by a corporate income tax increase. The governor opposes that, both because the tax increase wouldn't fully cover the increased cost and because he objects on principle to tax increases, especially on businesses.

Says Frosh, "They can't just say they won't increase taxes, because they are -- the tax is being paid by students."

James C. Rosapepe, a member of the Board of Regents and a former state delegate from College Park, last year helped establish Marylanders for Access to Quality Higher Education (www.accesstoquality.org), which pushed for the bill. Rosapepe said the principle of providing minimum funding to higher education is "why this bill is very important."

He points out that the reductions made by Ehrlich in December 2002 and June 2003 "were two to three times as much as any other area of state government. It wasn't 'share the pain.' It was a targeted cut of higher education."

Which brings us to the question of what obligation the state has to higher education. Time was when public colleges were extremely cheap or even free. No one even raises that as a goal anymore. But in the past 10 years, there has been a significant shift in the proportion of the costs of their education students are expected to pay.

In fiscal 1995, for example, tuition and fees raised $419.5 million and Maryland taxpayers picked up $611.5 million to cover the costs of higher education. That's a ratio of 4 to 6. By 2001, the ratio was more like 6 to 8, and this year it flipped: Tuition now provides more money to Maryland colleges and universities than the state does. Tuition raises $893.4 million to the state's contribution of $837.5 million, or roughly 9 to 8, if you do a little rounding.

In Maryland, subsidies of public colleges and universities have always been lower than in most places. But other states face the same issue of declining revenues and increased college costs, a situation that is squeezing lower-income students. At the same time, college is now acknowledged to be a necessity.

"The idea that a college education is discretionary is putting our state and our nation at risk," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

"Kindergarten through 12th grade is a mandatory item [in the state budget], and that's a throwback to an earlier era when everyone felt that a high school degree was essential," Kirwan said. "A college degree in this era is what a high school degree was in an earlier era."

Kirwan likens the current situation to a "perfect storm," caused by a significantly rising number of high school graduates -- a 25 percent increase over the current number of graduates by 2011 -- with a larger proportion of them coming from low-income families.

"And you've got, across the country, a disinvestment in higher education and higher tuition," he says. "This is raising a specter of an America that we may not want to live in."

Because they are heavy users of state public colleges, residents of Prince George's County should be especially interested in the fate of HB 1188.

Nearly 17,000 Prince George's residents are enrolled in the state's four-year public colleges and universities. Another 12,000 are in two-year public colleges, most of them at Prince George's Community College, which is so crowded that some students simply can't take the classes they need. The most dramatic example is that the college has had to limit the number of students taking biology, the foundation of nursing courses. That means the a critical shortage of nurses will take longer to overcome.

"All of the colleges are growing, and growing dramatically, over the short and long term," said Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College.

Williams sees an underlying philosophical issue. "Over the last 15 years, the government has treated higher education as a private good," he said, meaning that a college education has mostly been seen as contributing to the personal enrichment of individuals, rather than as a benefit to society. "I think that's a misguided position," he said. "I think the government still has a compelling interest in supporting higher education."

That is exactly the question that needs to be debated, whether or not the governor vetoes HB 1188.

Homeroom, which appears every other week, is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, Prince George's Extra, 9500 Arena Dr., Suite 400, Largo, Md. 20774. The fax number is 301-618-1780; the e-mail address is homeroom@washpost.com. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.