October 11, 2010

Decrease in government funds leads to small increases in community college tuition

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

A tuition freeze at Maryland’s public universities in the past four years has been a key talking point for Gov. Martin O’Malley in this year’s campaign — though the tuition cap started under Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s last budget.

Maryland’s community colleges, attended by half the undergraduates in Maryland, have not been able to match their four-year counterparts with a total freeze during the economic downturn, due to drops in state and local funding.

But they have tried hard to keep tuition increases minimal. Even Maryland’s most expensive community college — in Howard County — is a third less expensive than than lowest cost university for undergraduates — Coppin State — and costs less than half of the most expensive four-year schools — College Park and UMBC.

Despite the tuition freeze, increases in mandatory fees at the universities during the tuition freeze have nearly matched or exceeded the figures for increases in total costs at community colleges. At College Park, they were up 11% since fiscal 2007, and went up another 11% this year.

At most of the state’s 16 community colleges, tight budgets meant some tuition and fee increases to students, said Brad Phillips, research director at the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. The local schools are funded with a combination of dollars from the state, county, and student tuition.

According to MACC, from fiscal 2007 to 2009, tuition and fees have increased an average of $177, or about 6%. Statistics are not yet available for the current academic year, but Phillips said the increase is about another 2%. The average tuition and fees are now $3,286.
Accessible and affordable

Phillips said that community colleges try to keep higher education accessible and affordable for as many residents as possible.

“The role of the community college in an economic downturn is very important,” Phillips said. He said about 95% of a community college’s graduates — including those in vocational trades — will stay in their communities and work after they graduate. “Community colleges are the solution to the downturn,” Phillips said.

About half of the state’s college students attend community colleges. This past year community college enrollment was 140,000 students, while 113,000 students attended public state universities, and 32,000 attended private colleges.

Community college funding is set by a formula named after the late Sen. John Cade. It determines what percentage of funding for university students that each community college will receive from the state based on their enrollment.

The state is supposed to pick up a third of the costs, local governments pick up a third, and student tuition covers another third, Phillips said.

Hes said the state has never been able to kick in a full third of costs to community colleges. The state’s share in a normal year, he said, is usually about 29% – but that drops quite a bit during an economic downturn. In fiscal year 2009 – the most recent audited data – the state only picked up 23% of tuition costs on average. Counties shouldered 37% of the costs, while student tuition and fees made up 38%.

Money has been tight on the local and county level, too. However, Phillips said, the Cade formula requires counties to give at least the same amount of money to their community colleges that they did the previous year. Phillips said that counties have held firm on their financial obligations to the community colleges.
Enrollments are up, but it’s not everything

As the economy has plunged, community college enrollment has skyrocketed.

“We’ve had an explosion in enrollment,” Phillips said. “With the economy, there are people who don’t have jobs, so they come in, enroll, and retool their skills.”

Before the recession, enrollment statewide had been growing at about 4% each year. In 2008, enrollment increased by 6%, and a year later, it was up by 9%. For this academic year, it’s up by another 10%. With enrollment increasing like this, Phillips said, the number of students gained is close to as many as there would be if another school were added to the system.

Community colleges are designed to be accessible to people in the general population. Admission is open to anyone who has graduated high school.

Increasing enrollment levels and state funding based on it has helped offset losses in state funding without needing to raise tuition. But it hasn’t fixed all of the problems.

Each community college is governed by its own board, and faces its own financial challenges.

Cecil College took on a number of cost savings measures, said Stephen Pannill, the school’s president. But there were two important things that he and the board used to guide them: they wanted to keep costs low enough so that there is no financial barrier to attendance, and they did not want to cut spending on academics.

To reduce salaries, the college instituted an early retirement program to clear some of the college’s higher paid faculty members from the payroll. Younger instructors will replace them. No instructors will be permitted to take sabbatical leave this year. Also, Pannill said, each top administrator is teaching a class for free this year.

Energy conservation through technology and common sense has also been implemented throughout the campus, he said. And less money is being spent on technology supplies.

Still, Pannill said, Cecil College had to increase its tuition last year about 5.5% – the only increase in the college’s tuition and fees for three years. Pannill said he will do all he can to prevent another increase.

“We have slipped some, but everything we do is in the interest of keeping tuition as low as we can,” he said.

At Montgomery College, the county provides the community college with half of its funding. Last year county officials told the college that they might be reducing their budget by $15 million, said communications director Brett Eaton.

“We took drastic steps,” Eaton said.

The college furloughed employees, eliminated travel expenses, and restricting hiring. The school also tried to make as many cuts as possible to areas that have less to do with instruction – like facilities, technology, and human resources.

The board found that they still had to raise tuition, and instituted a $5 increase per credit hour, Eaton said.

Montgomery College is already preparing for more bleak financial news, Eaton said. The top priority for College President DeRionne Pollard is preserving academic services, Eaton said.

“We’re hoping that by starting this conversation early and making changes, we will not have to increase tuition again,” he said.