By ROB BOCK
WASHINGTON (January 27, 2012)—Maryland education leaders mostly praised President Obama's comments on education in his State of the Union speech, but they worried about his mandate to keep higher education costs affordable or face funding repercussions.
"This was in many ways a piece of the speech that was strong on the rhetoric and weak on the how-to," said Don Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In the address, Obama called for increasing grants, reducing proposed student loan rates and doubling the number of work-study jobs to keep higher education accessible to the middle class.
"The president understands it's not just the lower-income classes that need support. Middle-class Americans are also looking for ways to support their sons and daughters," said Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Hrabowski also said he agrees with Obama's education priorities.
"I was encouraged by his emphasis on affordable higher education. He was very clear that our future depends on education," Hrabowski said.
Mickey Burnim, president of Bowie State University, said that the reforms would reduce the number of students dropping out of school to raise money for tuition costs.
Yet it was the president's lack of specifics in the address that left Maryland education policy experts wary.
"So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down," Obama warned.
In-state tuition in most Maryland public institutions was frozen by the Board of Regents from 2006 to 2010 under policies put forth by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Since then, in-state tuition has risen approximately 3 percent each year.
O'Malley's most recent budget proposal would increase the University of Maryland, College Park's tuition 3 percent for the third straight year, with other state universities likely to follow.
Bowie State's in-state tuition for fiscal year 2012 is $4,547, up from $4,286, where it held from 2006 to 2010.
Putting another hold on tuition, Burnim said, "seems to be unfair."
"If the president's action would eliminate that possibility altogether, it could put a strain on our university," Burnim said.
There's no simple, "one-size-fits-all" answer to the matter of keeping tuition steady across schools nationwide, according to Nancy Shapiro, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs of the University System of Maryland.
"There are costs associated with running an institution that an institution can't manage by itself," Shapiro said. "But I think that keeping tuition manageable should be a high priority for a public university."
Kettl said Obama's call to increase state education support should impact Maryland less than other states thanks to Maryland's continually high level of education support over the past decade.
Maryland is budgeting $9.5 million in state funding for fiscal year 2013 to keep in-state tuition from rising no more than 3 percent for in-state undergraduates at University System of Maryland institutions.
Whether or not this will be enough to cover any potential losses in federal funding remains unclear pending specific details about Obama's policies.
But Shapiro thinks Maryland's track record of supporting education puts it in a good position to reap the benefits of Obama's reforms in the coming years.
"I think Maryland is a really strong education state; everything the president said resonates well with Maryland's economic policies. Maryland is the poster child for Obama's policies," she said.
Obama is expected to reveal more details about his plans in a speech about college affordability today at the University of Michigan.