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. vetoes a bill.

House Bill 1188, which passed the General Assembly during the session that adjourned last month, would limit tuition increases at Maryland's public colleges to 5 percent a year. If the Republican governor vetoes it later this month, which he has said he will, tuition will increase 10 percent -- that's been agreed to by university regents.

The chart also reflects what additional increases might be imposed if the governor cuts spending on colleges the way he did last year.

The chart was prepared by the nonpartisan Maryland Department of Legislative Services at the request of state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Bethesda) and, like all projections, it is based on assumptions. The projections could change if, say, the economy picks up, but as of now they show 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.

The size of possible tuition increases depends on the college and how the cuts are made, but one 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.

All the other public colleges would experience similar, or sometimes smaller, increases. The chart uses three schools 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 told me. 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 weren't cut 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 -- there is a mandatory amount the state is obligated to pay. He can't cut Medicare, at least not much. But because there is no set amount the state, by law, must pay for higher education, it is easy to make cuts 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 objects to that, both because the tax increase won't fully cover the increased cost and because he objects to tax increases on principle, especially those on business.

Frosh's answer to that is: "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 university system's 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 notes that the cuts made by Ehrlich in December 2002 and June of last year "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. That was so long ago that no one even raises it as a goal anymore. But in the past 10 years there has been a significant shift in the proportion students are expected to pay.

In fiscal 1995, for example, tuition and fees raised $419.5 million for the state, and Maryland taxpayers paid $611.5 million of 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 state 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.

Maryland is a bit of an extreme case because its subsidies of public colleges and universities have always been lower than those in most places. But other states face the same issue of declining revenues and increased college costs, a situation that squeezes lower-income students. At the same time, college is now acknowledged to be a necessity for everyone.

"The idea that a college education is discretionary is putting our state and our nation at risk," says 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 told me. "A college degree in this era is what a high school degree was in an earlier era."

Kirwan compares the situation to a "perfect storm," caused by a significantly rising number of high school graduates -- a 25 percent increase 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 Montgomery County families are heavy users of the state's colleges and universities, they should be especially interested in the fate of HB 1188. About 17,000 county residents are enrolled in the state's public four-year colleges and universities and another 18,000 attend two-year colleges, mostly at Montgomery College.

Montgomery College is becoming the fallback position for students squeezed by the high tuition at the state's four-year colleges. But tuition there has also been rising, and some students are being squeezed out of Montgomery College as well.

"What gets missed in the discussions are the students who get missed altogether," says Charlene Nunley, president of Montgomery College. She says she was unable to give institutional aid to 3,000 students whose low incomes qualified them for it this year. "Fourteen hundred didn't come here. My guess is they didn't go anywhere. That's a tragedy."

Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail homeroom@washpost.com. To see previous columns, go to www.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.