ANNAPOLIS – George Sadler can rattle off a list of reasons for taking automobile care and construction classes at the Community College of Baltimore County.
The courses allow him to study “something practical,” the Catonsville campus is close to home and work, and, perhaps most importantly, tuition is considerably less than four-year colleges and universities.
“I can pay it out of pocket,” said Sadler, 38, who works nearby at Mr. Wash car wash on Route 40. “Catonsville is cheaper.”
Students throughout Maryland are realizing the advantages of community colleges. In tough economic times, officials say, students flock to the cheaper two-year colleges for their various degree programs.
But huge enrollment has its cost, too. College officials are finding they can only extend resources so far.
With a greater demand – not to mention proposed cuts in Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s 2004 budget – many Maryland community colleges are contemplating tuition hikes.
Sadler already knows he’ll have to put more money aside for classes next year. CCBC will increase tuition next fall by $6 per credit hour for in-county students and $24 for those outside the county. Other colleges are contemplating tuition hikes next year as well.
“What’s fueling our (financial) need is the tremendous growth,” said Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. “How do you pay for all these new faces that are staring at you in the classroom?”
Community college enrollment for the past two years has nearly reached its 1991 high if 115,578, according to Maryland Higher Education Commission figures. The number had dropped to 103,361 in 2000.
During the 2000-01 school year, there were 109,411 students, an increase of about 6,000. And last school year, the number rose 4.8 percent – to nearly 115,000.
All but one of Maryland’s 16 community college campuses attracted new students last fall. Garrett College lost only two pupils, according to MHEC numbers.
“It’s the economics issue,” said Michael J. Keller, the commission’s director of policy analysis and research. “Very often, in times of economic downturn, individuals will return (to school) to pick up additional credentials.
“It’s not a law, but there’s a pattern to it that when the economy goes south, community college enrollment goes north.”
Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury has seen such tremendous growth, 253 students last fall, that the college instituted a mid-year tuition hike.
Rates rose this semester from $62 to $65 per credit hour for in-county students, and from $155 to $160 for out-of-county residents, said Dr. Ray Hoy, the college’s president.
“It just became too much for us,” Hoy said. “We had to bite the bullet.”
Other college officials, citing Maryland’s budget deficit, say they may be in the same situation next fall.
While the budget Ehrlich released Friday shows a 2.9 percent increase in community college aid next fiscal year, college officials say they still are worried about money.
Community college funding in Maryland is based, in part, on a formula recommended in 1997 by former Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel. The funding is based on the dollar amount the University System of Maryland receives each year per full-time student.
Under the formula, community colleges receive no less than 23.1 percent of the state’s general fund appropriation per pupil.
Because the governor’s budget shows a 7 percent reduction in higher education money for state institutions, community colleges are bound to feel the effects, said Janice Doyle, MHEC’s assistant secretary for finance.
“The consequence of that is we, too, will have to make some quick decisions,” added Kinkel.
A proposed budget from Montgomery College’s Board of Trustees recommends fees for in-county students increase next year by $5, from $79 to $84 per credit hour, said spokesman Steve Simon.
Out-of-county and out-of-state students also could experience per-credit- hour tuition hikes of $10 and $15, respectively, he said.
“We haven’t sent a letter (to students),” Simon said. “(But) given the last year’s fiscal situation, it’s inevitable we’re going to have to raise tuition.”
At Anne Arundel Community College, “obviously, in the mix of things, a tuition increase is being considered,” said spokeswoman Fran Turcott. “It’s like a quagmire. It’s a hard thing.”
Though Prince George’s Community College has not discussed any increases for next year, student fees for the current school year jumped by $5, said spokeswoman Deidra Hill.
“Of course, we are talking about the state’s huge deficit,” Hill said. “(But) we have not talked about tuition yet.”
For CCBC, enrollment combined with the state budget problems has meant more of a burden on students, said Chancellor Irving Pressley McPhail in a letter to students in December.
“I assure you this rate change was not considered lightly,” McPhail wrote. “However, the state of Maryland’s budget deficit . . . has required us to be proactive and responsible in reducing college expenses and raising additional revenue.”
Next year, Sadler said he’ll still be able to pay for community college classes as he works his way through school, but he acknowledged his classmates could be hit harder. He said he heard grumbling soon after students learned of the increase.
“For the people who are getting financial aid, it probably won’t hurt,” Sadler said. “For the people who are struggling and paying high rent, it will affect them.”