WASHINGTON – A study ranking Maryland’s colleges among the most expensive in the country has state educators, lawmakers and officials haggling over who’s to blame for the problem and how to solve it.
While the University System chancellor last week said it is “unrealistic” to expect tuition cuts, lawmakers rejected his suggestion that the state has not spent enough on higher education and financial aid.
“On balance, I think it’s real easy for people to blame others for their problems,” said Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington. “I do believe that the General Assembly, over the last seven to eight years, has stepped up to the bar to provide scholarship aid to students.”
A Monday report by the Lumina Foundation for Education said Maryland’s higher education system is among the least accessible for students from families with incomes less than $28,380.
Nine of the state’s 13 four-year public colleges and universities were deemed financially out-of-reach in the report, as were 11 of Maryland’s 15 private, four-year institutions. “Affordability” was determined by whether students could cover tuition costs using family and financial aid resources.
University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald Langenberg said there is a “myth . . . that universities are fat-happy places where no one keeps their eye on a buck, but that’s exactly what it is – a myth.”
“It’s as phony as a three-dollar bill,” said Langenberg. “It’s unrealistic to expect individual institutions to lower their tuition rates.”
Langenberg blamed the state for historic underfunding of higher education.
“Maryland is still lagging a great many states in investing in education,” he said. “We all know things are tight at the moment in Annapolis, but we need to keep focusing on education.”
The right response, he said, is to increase need-based state financial aid to students. But Annapolis lawmakers suggested the problem lies elsewhere.
Delegate Martha Klima, R-Baltimore County, said making education more affordable should be “a matter of prioritizing” existing state funds for higher education, not increasing them.
“I’m on the side of the student,” said Klima, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “Are these funds being utilized for higher salaries for professors? And if so, where does that leave those youngsters trying to get into college?”
Munson also bristled at the suggestion that the state has been stingy with higher education funds. Munson, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said not all families plan for college or apply to existing financial aid programs.
“My contention is, there’s a lot of people out there who don’t take advantage of it,” he said.
Maryland Secretary of Higher Education Karen Johnson also defended the state’s spending.
Johnson, whose office recently finished a study on the education needs of low-income students, pointed out that state funding for financial aid has doubled in recent years to nearly $82 million.
“These numbers suggest there’s a serious focus in the state on affordability,” she said.
While she said it is “no secret that as states go, we’re ranked pretty high for tuition costs,” she stopped short of blaming the state’s poor showing in the Lumina study on tuition prices.
“It’s definitely an issue, but I think the institutions recognize that,” she said. “No university president wants to be in the position of raising tuition rates.”
But George Cathcart, spokesman for the University of Maryland, College Park, said that campus might have to increase tuition because spending is outpacing state funding of university budgets.
“Right now, we get less than 38 percent of our total budget from state appropriations,” Cathcart said. He said the university is “committed to making higher education more affordable,” and has made financial aid a major priority in its $400 million fund-raising campaign.
The College Park campus, where in-state tuition is $5,341 this year, is among those labeled “unaffordable” in the Lumina study.
Johnson said the state is working to address the problem of affordability, but suggested that there may be no one single answer.
“I don’t necessarily see a new solution on the horizon,” she said. “I don’t know what the silver bullet is.”