January 25, 2010

Community colleges take budget hit

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

The amount of direct aid that Maryland sends to its local community colleges is set to take a hit under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget, as increased employee benefits costs eat into program assistance.

Though the amount that the state is spending on community college assistance would essentially stay the same in fiscal 2011 as it is this year, fringe benefits at community colleges are taking up an increasing amount of the share.

This means the state’s actual share of the cost of community college programs is declining, from $200 million this year to $194 million next year. That’s cause for concern for the colleges, who have seen more students attending during the economic downturn. The total spending level for community colleges will be around $231 million, which includes several grant programs as well as benefits.

This year, O’Malley’s budget proposes to set a specific funding level for the colleges. Previously, the state had set community college spending as a percentage of the amount Maryland spends per student at public, four-year institutions.

Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said the suspension of the funding formula is not as much a concern as is the decline in direct aid.

He said the community colleges have seen the state funding formulas altered before, but this year’s drop in direct aid is new.

The state would renew the formula for community college spending in fiscal 2013, but it would be scaled back. Originally, the state had intended to pay for its share of community college spending at about a third of its per-student spending at public universities.

The state plans to spend essentially the same amount next year on public colleges, at about $1.1. billion. That spending level would cause a 3 percent increase in tuition costs, the first time tuition has gone up in three years.

Del. John Bohanan, D-St. Mary’s, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and Economic Development, said the state does its best to support community colleges, as well as private schools. However, he said Maryland has to balance its priorities for higher education.

He pointed out that the state shares responsibility for community colleges with local governments.

“I think it’s important to support the community colleges, especially at this time, because we have a lot of folks who are going back,” Bohanan said. “I think we also are fully-responsible for our public colleges and universities, and we have to maintain that as a priority.”