ANNAPOLIS – Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich dispelled fears Friday that colleges and universities, showered with extra funding under his predecessor, would bear the brunt of the state’s cuts to close a $1.7 billion budget gap.
“The numbers are dismal,” Ehrlich said. However, “there will be no disproportionate burden – especially any area of state government that is running especially strong.”
Despite the reassurance, higher education officials said they are still concerned about how they’ll shoulder their share of the impending state budget burden.
The higher education budget is taken from an $11 billion general fund, $7 billion of which is devoted to programs such as primary-secondary education and Medicaid, and is considered untouchable.
Ehrlich is still forming his transition team and did not comment in detail about any of his possible plans for the budget, however higher education leaders are already forming theirs.
“You’ve probably seen, heard, talked about the numbers – and they’re not pretty,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan to University of Maryland faculty, staff and students Thursday at a University Senate meeting. “We’re not just going to sit back and wait and see what happens.”
Instead, the system may have to rely on tuition increases to make up for the deficit.
Kirwan has formed a task force to discuss tuition increases, which were previously capped at 4 percent. That unofficial maximum was broken this year when tuition for state residents rose 5.5 percent.
Along with likely tuition increases, Kirwan said his focus will include providing need-based aid to ease the financial burden.
“I’m very concerned about the erosion of need-based aid,” Kirwan said. “I think we face a real risk of excluding a large fraction” of potential students.
Without additional funds, higher education officials fear budget cuts could hinder development of programs that have helped Maryland schools climb in national rankings.
The state’s new leaders say they do not want to harm the state’s progress in higher education.
“We’re both very strong proponents for higher education,” said Lt. Gov.- elect Michael Steele. “We’re trying to be realistic, but also optimistic.”
For eight years, the state’s colleges and universities enjoyed record funding under Gov. Parris Glendening, who boosted overall higher education funding by 64 percent.
Kirwan vowed Thursday to be a strong representative for higher education in Annapolis this spring, specifically saying he would advocate smaller cuts for the state’s flagship university in College Park.
The system is also beginning a “Maintain the Momentum” campaign, calling on support from alumni, business leaders and parents.
“We clearly don’t know yet what actions will be taken by the state,” Kirwan said. “I feel quite hopeful about his (Ehrlich’s) commitment to higher education. I think we’re just going to have to see how things will unfold over the next couple of months.”