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Why was Maryland the only state to stop tuition increases?

[This is my Local Living section column for Nov. 12]

I often interview educators and gather data to find which high schools are doing the best job teaching kids. It is satisfying work, with the biggest payoff in visiting those schools and telling them how good they are compared to others. This is often a surprise to the teachers and administrators, who are too busy helping students to sift the numbers themselves.

I don’t usually do this with colleges and universities. The available data are not as good, and I haven’t spent as much time figuring out how such places work. But occasionally I stumble across a report that illuminates differences in higher education that should be revealed to the universities involved and the families who support them. Take, for instance, a story in the November/December issue of Washington Monthly magazine unearthing an extraordinary fact about Maryland.

Over the past four years, the state’s public university system was the only one in the country not to raise tuition for in-state students.

How did that happen? Nobody waved a magic wand. Nobody struck oil under any campus quads. The miracle happened in the messiest possible way. The author of the piece, Jon Marcus, U.S. correspondent for the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine, attributes it to latent anger about tuition bills “turned to good use — first by convincing the universities that it was in their interests to increase productivity, then by finagling a political bidding war in support of greater state funding for higher education.”

With assistance from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Marcus went deep into the process that leads most colleges and universities to charge students more whenever budget problems arise. “For the most part,” Marcus writes, “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.”

This was the likely outcome in 2003 when Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) told the state university system’s chancellor, William English “Brit” Kirwan, that with a $1.billion state deficit, he was going to have to cut the higher education budget severely. The university system reacted in the usual way, freezing salaries, delaying maintenance and raising tuition — a planned 40.percent increase over three years.

Neither Ehrlich nor the chairman of the Board of Regents, retired business executive Clifford Kendall, liked that knee-jerk reaction. They found new ways of saving money, inspired by polls showing that Marylanders did not want their universities turned into havens for rich folks. Marcus lists the changes. The details might seem boring, but for anyone who ever griped about a tuition bill, they’re important, so read carefully:

“Auditing, construction management, and procurement were centralized. The separate campuses saved several million dollars by buying electricity and computer software collectively. To speed up graduation and reduce instructional expenses, students were required to earn at least twelve credits outside the classroom through online courses, internships, study-abroad programs, or Advanced Placement tests. To handle growing enrollment, new students were steered to less costly campuses.”

Most astonishing of all, Kendall persuaded the faculty to take on larger teaching loads. Some tuition increases were still on the agenda, but the gubernatorial election in 2006 forced Ehrlich, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, to outdo each other as friends of overburdened college families. When O’Malley was elected, he stuck to his campaign promises.

The miracle, Marcus said, might end soon. Budget pressures are climbing. But if the other 49 state university systems had exhibited any of the imagination and toughness Maryland officials displayed, many more American college students would have gotten an unexpected but welcome break.

By Jay Mathews  | November 11, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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Thanks for this rare but welcome look at how education can become more effective even as schools face budget cuts. In many states, too, lottery money often displaces state funding which has the effect of rocketing tuition rates.

A closer look at the actual costs of educating students tied to an analysis of the graduation rates could help students choose better values; in many cases related bureaucracies suck-up tuition dollars and "eduction" slouches into a "jobs" program.

One remarkable aspect of Maryland's success, here, seems to be the effectiveness of even mild cost-reduction measures. Just imagine how much more could be accomplished if they took an even more serious approach!

PS: Loved the "boiler-plate" budget cut response you presented; this is SO true! If schools are not trying to scare students and the state by overstating cuts in services, they are turning off the AC and heat to get their points across. Nice to see some officials getting wise to the game!

Posted by: socks2 | November 12, 2009 6:35 PM | Report abuse

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