Maryland's public colleges are bursting at the seams, and unless the governor and the legislature act promptly, in-state students who have earned the right to admission may find themselves locked out.
Look at the numbers.
In 1998, 52,000 Marylanders graduated from high school. In 2008 that number is expected to be 68,000. What's more, an increasing percentage of these high school graduates will want to pursue a college education. Part of the squeeze is the product of success:
Maryland public schools are doing a better job of preparing students for college. The recently released National Report Card on Higher Education said, "Over the past decade, the proportions of [Maryland] 8th-graders performing well on national assessments in math and writing have increased" and "the proportions of 11th- and 12th-graders taking and scoring well on advanced placement exams have more than doubled." The Thornton law, which increases investment in Maryland public schools, should accelerate this trend.
The result is that in fall 2008, almost 16,000 more Maryland high school graduates are expected to seek seats in classes on the 11 campuses of the University System of Maryland. Thousands more will be looking for places at Morgan State University, St. Mary's College, community colleges and private universities. But state support for all these potential students won't automatically be forthcoming.
In Maryland, as in most states, most public funding for kindergarten through grade 12 is based on the number of students: More students, more funding. This also is true for Maryland's funding of community colleges.
But this is not true for the university system or for Morgan State, which together educate more than 71 percent of Maryland's four-year college students. In fact, during the past three years, the state has provided no additional funding even though 11,000 additional students qualified for admission to these institutions during that period. The cost of their education instead was covered by higher tuition -- up 30 percent in the past two years -- along with increased efficiency and reduced services. Tuition probably will be raised again for fall 2005.
This strategy is not sustainable. Maryland now has the sixth-highest public tuition in the country, earning it a grade of "F" for affordability from the National Report Card.
Further, deeper cuts in teaching and research investment will threaten the university system's hard-earned gains in quality. Already this year, for the first time in seven years, the University of Maryland-College Park dropped in U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of the best colleges. More tuition increases will price thousands of Marylanders out of access to higher education. And such tuition increases are feasible at only some campuses anyway.
For example, College Park might be able to double its tuition, as some have proposed, while maintaining its enrollment by admitting richer, less-qualified applicants. In effect, it might be able to privatize itself. But at Coppin State, 85 percent of students are on financial aid. Coppin State couldn't survive a doubling of tuition.
Mathematically, it might be possible to raise tuition dramatically at College Park and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and then use the extra money to subsidize more affordable tuition at campuses such as Frostburg and Towson. But is that what proponents of higher tuition have in mind, and would it be fair?
Maryland needs to invest in the education of every qualified student at the state's public four-year colleges -- just as it does in the education of every student in its public schools and community colleges. Students at College Park, Bowie State, the University of Baltimore and the other campuses deserve no less.
Legislation to provide this protection was introduced this year by State Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) and 29 other senators. The legislation also would have capped tuition increases at 4 percent a year, but it did not pass. Instead, the General Assembly adopted a bill that restored much of the recent budget cuts, capped tuition increases at 5 percent and protected access for three years. The governor, however, vetoed that bill.
Whether or not the legislature overrides that veto, the long-term threat to access to higher education in Maryland will remain until the state ensures that funding is available for every qualified in-state student to pursue a college degree.
-- Jim Rosapepe
is a member of the University System of Maryland
Board of Regents and co-founder of Marylanders
for Access to Quality Higher Education.