By ANDREW KATZ
WASHINGTON (Jan. 30, 2010) - With a tuition increase likely for Maryland's public universities next year, you'd expect more protests, but students and others have taken the news as more positive than negative.
Talia Halperin, a 19-year-old sophomore art major at Towson University, said the raise was "reasonable."
Some even praised Gov. Martin O'Malley, who's continued to hold in-state tuition steady for three of the last four years, but announced Jan. 13 that tuition will rise for the next school year.
"He is a national leader," said Christopher Falkenhagen, communications director for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "Coming in with 3 percent shows that, of course we all know the tuition freeze had to end, but ... it's incredible and shows his commitment to higher education."
O'Malley formally submitted his fiscal 2011 budget plan to the General Assembly on Jan. 20, one week after hinting at a 1-to-3 percent resident tuition upswing.
"USM requested a 3 percent increase this year as part of their budget proposal," said Shaun Adamec, O'Malley's press secretary, "and the governor accepted that request."
Any adjustment of the current in-state tuition rates would effectively end the four-year freeze that O'Malley promised to retain in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign against former Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
The proposed increase would affect all full-time, in-state undergraduates at any of USM's 13 institutions or two regional centers and Morgan State University—a historically black institution.
Only after a four-year surge in resident tuition did Ehrlich implement the halt.
"(Ehrlich) wanted a 40 percent increase, which was an embarrassment to higher education nationwide," Falkenhagen said, "and when Gov. O'Malley came in, he said, 'You know, we're not going to do it.'"
Students and state officials say O'Malley has kept his word.
"The goal, when we set out on this multi-year tuition freeze, was to make tuition more affordable for Maryland families," Adamec said.
"This year's modest increase is the result largely of the positive outcome of this tuition freeze," he added. "It was the governor's intent to make college more affordable ... and he's done that."
Pat Gotham, student government president at Salisbury University, agreed that it has been effective and called 3 percent after four years of flat tuition "fair."
"When you think about the state of the economy and how we've been facing a lot of budget cuts lately, we aren't going to be spared as much as we have been last year," the 20-year-old dual marketing and management major said. "Three percent isn't that much."
Gotham has met with other students since word spread of the proposal to sense their concerns.
"We're doing our best to tell our students 'A 3 percent increase is coming, but it's not as bad as it seems,'" he said. "It's not exactly that much ... and it will help out the university."
David Valenta, student government treasurer at Frostburg State University, has also discussed O'Malley's budget with other students.
Valenta, 20, said he would support the governor's increase if it helped reduce the burden on USM.
"Raising tuition is going to help reduce the furlough days," he said, "because furlough days are a result of the budget cuts."
Fewer class offerings, mandatory faculty furlough days and a diminished facilities renewal fund have all resulted from Board of Public Works-approved budget reductions the past two years, USM Associate Director of Budget Analysis Monica West said, but it's not known whether the hike would deter future cutbacks.
"(Ending) the tuition freeze is a really good idea," Valenta maintained. "I'm OK with paying a little more to receive a better education."
With a $2 billion budget deficit, O'Malley had to deviate from his campaign promise, but at 3 percent—compared with neighboring states, who Falkenhagen said are wrestling with difficult increases—there's little room to criticize.
The University of Virginia's Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies said students are paying $7,500 this year—34 percent more than they did in 2005. Tuition for this fiscal year is up 4 percent over the previous year, the smallest increase during that time period. Virginia Tech University's Bursar notes in-state tuition grew $218.50 over last year to about $3,400 or an increase of 6.9 percent.
"When you look at Virginia and all of the other states that are raising their tuition," Falkenhagen said, "that 3 percent is just a very minimal increase considering the massive budget increase that we're facing in Maryland."
Based on current rates—Coppin State University froze at $3,527 and University of Maryland, College Park stalled at $6,566—O'Malley's proposal would add only a few hundred dollars per student for the entire year.
Eleanor Lewis, senior communications director at UMBC, said that despite the additional $195 each resident, full-time UMBC undergraduate will fork over, the revenue would help to "preserve both the quality of USM programs and access to classes."
Even with the upturn, O'Malley's team projects USM will fall from the sixth-most-expensive public university system in the nation to No. 21.
"That's a very good thing," USM Associate Director of Budget Analysis Monica West said. "Maryland's been held up as a model for affordability" and "I would hope (students and parents) would be very happy."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.