Excellence doesn't happen by accident. For decades Maryland's leaders planned, invested and worked diligently to establish a standard of excellence at the state's 13 institutions of higher education.

But the future of that excellence may be in jeopardy. Tuition rates are ballooning and state funding is dropping. Now Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has vetoed legislation passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly that would have capped tuition increases at public colleges and universities at 5 percent a year for three years. This veto will hurt college students and families trying to save enough money to send their kids to college.

The legislature acted because its members understand the depth of the financial commitment already required to put a child through college. In 2002, in-state tuition at the University of Maryland in College Park was $4,800 -- not including room and board. Last year tuition was $5,568. When students return to classes this August, they'll pay $6,200. These figures mean that the average tuition at Maryland public college and universities has increased 29 percent in just two years.

Capping tuition increases without finding a supplementary revenue source could, of course, hurt the state's public colleges and universities. Just as the price of milk and gasoline rises, so does the cost of education. So as a funding source, the legislature proposed a temporary 0.7 percentage point increase in the state's corporate tax rate, which hadn't been raised since 1968.

If the governor had signed that legislation, the corporate tax rate would have risen to 7.7 percent -- still significantly lower than in surrounding states, including Pennsylvania (9.99 percent); West Virginia and New Jersey (9 percent), and Delaware (8.7 percent), as well as the District (9.975 percent).

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education estimates that 250,000 prospective college students were shut out of higher education in 2003 because of rising tuition or cuts in admissions and course offerings. Since Ehrlich took office, he has cut funding to public higher education and community colleges by $203 million. That's $404,000 a day, or $2.8 million a week. How these reductions will affect the status of public higher education in Maryland is unknown. But past investments in these institutions have reaped enormous benefits for Maryland and its citizens.

According to the policy center, Maryland leads the nation in having an educated populace -- one-third of Marylanders 25 and older have at least a bachelor's degree. Almost half of Marylanders aged 18 to 24 enroll in college-level courses.

The National Science Foundation ranks Maryland first in the nation for doctoral graduates in biological, agricultural and health sciences. Maryland is second nationally in doctorates in computer and mathematical sciences.

In 1994 the University of Maryland system had only a handful of nationally ranked programs. After eight years of sustained investment, it had 65 programs ranked in the top 25. Maryland's research universities earned 140 patents and filed 457 patent applications in 2000. Thirteen new companies were formed based on their discoveries and inventions.

Marylanders paying tuition bills will notice the immediate effect of the governor's veto as they write larger checks and take out more loans to finance a college education. But the state's economy could pay the ultimate price if the governor doesn't find a solution that ensures that a good education remains affordable and accessible. If he doesn't like the legislature's plan, what's his?

-- Frank Turner

a Democratic delegate, represents Howard

County and is a member of the Higher

Education Commission.

frank_turner@house.state.md.us