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All taxpayers should back affordable college degrees

October 22, 2003

With enrollment projected to grow by 41 percent by 2010, the University System of Maryland needs millions in new funds unless state officials want to see the state's public colleges "grow into mediocrity." So said USM Chancellor William Kirwan. What no one has said is whether the burden will be borne by every taxpayer, or just students and their parents.

After deep cuts to Maryland's higher education budget in the last General Assembly session, students were hit with an unheard-of, mid-year tuition increase. This past Friday, the USM Board of Regents voted another 9.4 percent boost and Kirwan said he may seek yet another increase if Gov. Robert Ehrlich doesn't find $60 million in new money for the system.

Ehrlich may have unwittingly started the regents' rush to raise rates during a recent trip to Hagerstown when he described the $6,700-a-year tuition at the College Park campus as "maybe the best deal in the universe today."

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Shortly thereafter, Richard Hug, Ehrlich's chief political fund-raiser, proposed doubling tuition over the next four to five years, saying it would encourage students to graduate more quickly and enhance the university's prestige.

Ehrlich quickly disavowed such a strategy, but with costs and enrollment increasing, the governor has to make a choice about how Maryland will get as many citizens as possible a college education.

If middle-class students whose families make too much to qualify for financial aid are priced out of four-year schools, many may have to start working full-time first and attending classes part-time, stretching out the process of getting a degree, the opposite of what Hug intended.

Starting at a community college and transferring later would likely save money, but would leave the four-year schools with a population with few middle-class students.

That would be a loss for those institutions and unfair to those citizens who've worked hard enough to be comfortable, but who have, for whatever reason, not become rich. A tuition hike should not be the only option for closing USM's funding gap.

As painful as it may be for him, Ehrlich should try to sell Marylanders on the idea that an educated citizenry is an idea worth supporting with some of their tax dollars.

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