By ALLYSON DICKMAN
WASHINGTON (Nov. 13, 2008)—A plan released Wednesday to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fund Maryland higher education, elevate the status of historically black institutions and keep tuition low may be too ambitious in the current economic climate.
The Commission to Develop the Maryland Model for Funding Higher Education, which held a public hearing on its plan Wednesday where dozens of people pleaded for a piece of the diminishing funding. A final copy of its plan will be presented to the General Assembly in December.
The commission, created in 2006 by the Maryland General Assembly, is led by Delegate John L. Bohanan, Jr., D-St. Mary's. The commission contains 27 members, including state legislators, university presidents, business leaders and higher education officials and was called to ensure accountability and accessibility of higher education in Maryland.
The plan is essentially a higher education version of the 2002 Thornton Law, which mandated that state spending on elementary and secondary education increase by $1.3 billion a year over six years to improve school performance.
One of the commission's biggest priorities is to increase financing and raise graduation rates at historically black institutions to make them competitive both state- and nationwide. Between $3 million and $4 million should be given to each historically black institution, which include Bowie State University, Coppin State
University, and Morgan State University, the commission recommended.
Historically black institutions have a dual mission, said Mickey L. Burnim, Bowie State president. That mission is to provide high-quality, undergraduate education and provide access to students typically considered underprepared for higher education.
To meet that double goal, funding needs are "serious and immediate," he said.
Another goal is a tuition stabilization program to keep costs affordable for students. The program would also enact loan forgiveness programs to reduce student debt.
"I have estimated that I will accrue well over $200,000 in debt by the time I graduate," testified Melissa Kim, a second-year pharmacy student at the University of Maryland at Shady Grove.
"This is an investment in my education that I have made in order to achieve my future career goals," she said. "For many students, however, this type of investment is too much of a financial burden. By expanding financial aid ... Maryland has the opportunity to attract more students to help offset work force shortages."
But plans to expand financial aid, keep tuition costs low and provide millions in funding for all of Maryland's higher education institutes, including community colleges, may not be possible as the state budget shrinks.
"I honestly think we have to be realistic, and it's probably not going to happen," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's, a commission member. "When the economy is not doing well, the last thing you want to do is add to that. The timing for this whole thing is off."
The commission hopes that by prioritizing its recommendations, the Maryland General Assembly may approve at least some of its goals.
"The danger of this is maybe you rubber stamp (one thing), not realizing maybe some of these other things are just as important but not fiscally realistic at this point," Dyson said.
During the public hearing, many people suggested that the commission recommendations be more than just goals.
"Your plan makes sense," said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, a former Board of Regents member. "But its goals are not enough. They need to be written into state law, capping tuition hikes so college is affordable and mandating the state adequately fund college opportunity."
With state funds tight, the commission is wary of turning its proposals into law.
"I don't want it to become a mandate because then you start taking money from other programs which are just as good, and we don't want to do that," Dyson said.
The commission has been working since 2006 on the problems of Maryland's higher education institutions. But hopes to get plans passed by the General Assembly are dismal.
"It's unfortunate that this couldn't have happened during the (Gov. Parris) Glendening administration when we had those phenomenal budget surpluses," Dyson said. "It's a shame ... a lot of this wish list could have been enacted."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.