- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

The dining hall at the University of Baltimore has been replaced with a snack bar. Salisbury University students have to pay $5 for each visit to the health center. The University of Maryland at College Park closed its dental clinic.

The 13 institutions in the University System of Maryland say they have made numerous cuts in the past few years as state funding dwindled and enrollments increased. They have slashed jobs, trimmed student services and put off much-needed repairs.

But with state support expected to be flat in the next fiscal year and heavy criticism that the schools are relying too much on big tuition increases to make up for lost funding, the system’s Board of Regents is weighing new ways to cut costs.

Those include speeding up the amount of time it takes students to graduate, encouraging enrollment in online courses, centralizing some administrative offices and forging new ties with community colleges.

“Can we solve our problems through belt-tightening? No,” said William Kirwan, chancellor of the university system. “But in this economic time, [the regents] need to make a very credible statement of what we are doing to reduce costs.”

The system faced an 11 percent cut in state support in the 2004 fiscal year and has been told by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. that its funding won’t increase in the 2005 fiscal year. The shortage of state money has prompted the regents to raise tuition by more than 20 percent and warn of future increases.

Some state lawmakers say the system hasn’t done enough to cut costs, relying too heavily on tuition increases. A Republican-backed bill that caps tuition at the rate of inflation is based in part on the premise that the universities must make much deeper cuts.

Republicans on a House of Delegates committee studying tuition have proposed a closer look at salaries, the course loads of faculty members and the costs of university physical plants, said House Minority Whip Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, Calvert Republican.

“Throwing money at [the university system] is not the solution when we haven’t been shown efficiencies,” he said.

But the campuses say they have taken numerous steps to increase efficiency, starting with job cuts and reduction in some student services.

At College Park, for example, the university eliminated 900 jobs this year to help make up for a $54 million cut in state funding. Many of those were student positions and vacant jobs left unfilled, but 77 persons were laid off.

The University of Baltimore has allowed class sizes to grow in its business school and left four top administrator positions unfilled. It even eliminated its on-campus dining service, said spokesman Chris Hart.

“We’re doing all we can in the current environment to maintain the level of service our students expect and deserve,” he said.

More changes may be on the way. A regents task force is studying several options to cut costs and is expected to make recommendations within a few months, Mr. Kirwan said.

The cuts include limits on the amount of time students spend on campus. A residential campus is expensive, requiring dorms, classroom space and staff to support the infrastructure. An individual student pays only a portion of the cost of education through tuition. The rest comes from state money.

The regents may steer more students toward online courses, which cost less than traditional courses. That includes running entry-level classes through online seminars and partnering with community colleges to allow students with a two-year associate’s degree to complete a bachelor’s degree online rather than at a system campus.

The system will also encourage students to speed up the time it takes to graduate by reducing the required credit load in some programs and beefing up summer school. The average student who entered a University System of Maryland program in 1995 took 9.2 semesters to graduate, a figure that shrank in the 1990s but was still higher than the standard eight semesters.

“The students that stay on five, six, seven years are costing a lot of money because the state continues to subsidize their education,” Mr. Kirwan said.

Some offices that exist on each campus may be centralized. For example, student financial aid for each campus could be run out of one main office, Mr. Kirwan said.

However, some university critics say that isn’t enough. Union leaders who represent campus employees say universities will not touch the “sacred cow” of higher education — a large cadre of well-paid senior administrators in the system office and at each campus.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has pushed for capping administrator pay at the governor’s salary level, now roughly $150,000 a year.

Mr. Kirwan makes $375,000 a year, and the College Park campus has administrators and some faculty who make more than $200,000 annually.

AFSCME says it is the workers on the bottom rungs of the salary scales, such as hourly workers, who pay the brunt of cost cutting.

“The lower-paid employees seem to be the first line of attack,” said Sally Davies, president of AFSCME’s Council 92, which represents state employees.

The system’s board of regents studied salaries and concluded they were on par with peer institutions in other states. And the system already has 68 percent more students per staff member than peers such as the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Michigan, according to the regents study.

Clifford Kendall, chairman of the regents, said he is convinced the universities have taken significant steps to save money.

“Our system was and is one of the most efficient in the nation,” he said.

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