How Maryland held the line on college costs.
If you had to pick one institution that best exemplifies the American dream, what would it be? Hollywood? Too vain and cutthroat. Professional sports? Too few winners making too much money. Wall Street? Um, no.
The institutions that arguably come closest to embodying the idea that anyone, regardless of family background, can make it on the basis of ability and hard work are the nation’s public universities. A distinctly American invention, they began with the creation of land-grant colleges in the nineteenth century—an effort to disseminate the latest agricultural and mechanical learning to as many ordinary Americans as possible. They expanded hugely after World War II, with the help of the GI Bill and other hefty federal and state government investments. Public universities remain the route of choice for striving middle- and lower-middle-class kids, serving two-thirds of America’s four-year undergraduates, at an average cost ($6,585 in tuition and fees for in-state students) that is less than a third the sticker price of private four-year schools ($25,143).
But the promise of social mobility that public universities represent is increasingly unraveling. Thanks to spendthrift institutional habits and stingy state legislatures, public universities of all kinds are on a rapid climb toward unaffordability, and average inflation-adjusted tuition has more than doubled from 1990 to 2008. Tuition has actually increased faster at public four-year universities than at private ones for a decade running. And with state tax revenues shrinking due to the recession, state government outlays for higher education are plummeting, meaning even higher tuition hikes for students attending public colleges this fall.
A handful of states have tried to fight the tide. Florida and Ohio put tuition caps on their state universities two years ago, but lifted them this summer in the face of economic woes. Missouri just imposed a two-year tuition freeze on its public universities, but only after having allowed big tuition increases over the last few years. For the most part, state-level elected officials and university administrators have been content to indulge in a tacit conspiracy, allowing school expenditures to rise unchecked while the costs of paying for them are shifted away from taxpayers and onto the backs of students and their families. It’s gotten to the point where some states are considering completely shutting off taxpayer support for their flagship universities—letting them become, in effect, like private institutions, able to hike tuition and cater to the upper middle class as much as they please.
There’s one state that has fairly successfully bucked the higher-tuition trend, however: Maryland. The approximately 150,000 students who attend the eleven campuses that make up the University System of Maryland—from the ivy-covered flagship University of Maryland in College Park to historically black Bowie State University in Prince George’s County—are paying the same tuition this fall that they did the previous academic year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
How did Maryland manage to hold the line on tuition for four years in a row, when no other public university system was able to do so? The system’s board of regents insisted on some modest long-term operational efficiencies, and the universities’ administrators and faculty actually complied. Then elected officials, responding to political pressure, agreed to increase funding for higher education. It’s not a terribly shocking tale—unless you work in academia, in which case you talk about the Maryland example the way soldiers discuss the Battle of Thermopylae. Indeed, what’s astonishing about this story is not so much what happened as the fact that in other states, such things almost never do.
The story begins in 2003, when Robert Ehrlich, the newly elected governor of Maryland and the first Republican to hold that position since Spiro Agnew, invited into his office the state university system’s charismatic chancellor, William English “Brit” Kirwan. The governor had bad news. Facing an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly and a $1 billion deficit in a sputtering economy, Ehrlich informed Kirwan of the first of what proved to be draconian cuts of $122 million out of the state allocation of $868 million for the university system. Although only 7.5 percent of the state’s general-fund budget went to its universities, they suffered 20 percent of the cuts. It was a situation that would shortly be repeated in state after state. The impact of the cuts was compounded by higher fuel and health insurance costs and an enrollment spike over the subsequent year of more than 5,000 full-time students.
To make up the shortfall, the university system did what nearly all public universities do in lean times. First, it imposed short-term spending cuts of a kind that cannot (or will not) be sustained: it froze salaries and hiring, delayed new programs, trimmed library hours, and put off maintenance. Second, it raised tuition—around 40 percent during a span of three years, depending on the campus, making Maryland’s public universities the sixth most expensive in America.
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