A better path
The value and importance of education to economic attainment in our society has never been greater than it is today

Friday, May 8, 2009
Commentary | Laslo Boyd

State Sen. Jim Rosapepe should be feeling pretty good right now. He has managed to accomplish something that is pretty rare in politics, getting an issue that had been receiving little attention from policymakers and turning it into a state priority. The issue is tuition at public universities in Maryland.
In 2004, in the midst of budget problems that led to a series of reductions in state aid under Gov. Bob Ehrlich, tuitions were in the process of increasing by 40 percent over several years. Rosapepe, then a member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, put together a grassroots organization to lobby policy makers to "keep tuitions affordable."
His arguments were not having much success with a board that at that point was dominated by Ehrlich appointees who saw no problem with the dramatic increases and asserted that the tuition level was still a bargain. And the dilemma for the public universities was that, faced with reductions in state funding, the only alternatives were to cut spending, increase tuition, or some combination of the two.
There have, in fact been, significant reductions. USM Chancellor Brit Kirwan points with pride to an efficiency and economy initiative that has led to savings of $100 million. A couple of weeks ago, President Obama cited the USM cuts as a national model. Others have argued that higher education needs a different business approach and to rethink in fundamental ways how it is structured and operates. But the current reality is that Maryland, under Kirwan's leadership, has gone further than most states in taking cost reductions seriously.
Opposition to tuition hikes
Rosapepe's idea in 2004 was to generate public opposition to the large tuition increases and get the attention of the Maryland General Assembly. Through a combination of student activists, alumni, parents and a prominent public advisory board, an organized campaign was put together and found well-positioned champions in the General Assembly. House Speaker Mike Busch and state Sen. Brian Frosh introduced legislation the following session and increased the political pressure on the governor.
The ultimate success of this movement didn't come until Martin O'Malley ran for governor in 2006 and decided that the issue was a good way to highlight the differences between himself and Bob Ehrlich. And since being elected, O'Malley has provided funds in the state budget each year to enable the Board of Regents to impose a tuition freeze at all the University System of Maryland institutions.
You can debate whether this policy decision represents a far-sighted investment in the future of the state or a clever political calculation motivated solely by electoral considerations. The reasons, ultimately, don't matter because the result has been to make Maryland stand almost alone among the states. While others are slashing higher education budgets and approving large tuition increases, Maryland has maintained its tuition freeze even in the midst of the tumbling economy.
The path that Maryland has taken is dramatically different than the choice that many other states have made. Take South Carolina, for example, where the state legislature recently cut a whopping 25 percent from the public higher education budget.
Of course, that's the same state where the governor, Mark Sanford, in a bid to polish his credentials with the extreme far right of the Republican Party, has rejected a significant portion of federal stimulus money for which South Carolina is eligible. The negative impact of that huge cut will be seen both in the short and long run as more students leave the state to study elsewhere and the workforce becomes less competitive.
But the trend goes way beyond states that have never had much of a record of supporting higher education. California, which for years has been a national example for other states, is cutting $115 million from the University of California System and tuition there will increase by 9.3 percent. The list goes on with early estimates that, nationally, the average tuition increase at public institutions will be at least 5 percent to 6 percent.
Providing opportunities
How much all of this matters depends on your perspective. If you are making comparisons with tuition at pricey private institutions, the numbers don't look that big. But if you believe that the purpose of public higher education is to provide opportunities for people regardless of their economic situation, then the tuition increases pose a significant problem. The value and importance of education to economic attainment in our society has never been greater than it is today.
You don't have to rely on Tom Friedman to know that we are living in a global economy and that means that our competitors are no longer just neighboring states, but the whole world. If we're going to be competitive and prosperous, we need as much of our population to be as well educated as possible. And the first step in that process is to be able to afford to go to college.
So, whether you agree with them or not on all sorts of other issues, you should probably be grateful that Jim Rosapepe, Brit Kirwan, Mike Busch, Brian Frosh, Martin O'Malley and a lot of others have thought that trying to keep tuition levels at Maryland public universities as affordable as possible should be a high priority.
Laslo Boyd is a partner at Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies. He also teaches courses at both Towson University and the University of Baltimore. His e-mail address is