Don't Cut Aid to Private Colleges

Below is a piece written by Tina Bjarekull, President of the Maryland Independent College and University Association (MICUA), about the importance of the Sellinger Program for independent colleges and universities – and the state of Maryland – that appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

Don't Cut Aid to Private Colleges

September 24, 2009

During times of shrinking revenues and economic uncertainty, effective business leaders do not slaughter the cash cow or sell the goose that lays the golden eggs. They do not indiscriminately cut programs or raise prices. They gather facts, conduct cost-benefit analyses and make informed decisions to build a stronger and more stable business model to better compete in a changing global economic environment. In response to The Sun's recent editorial "Incredible shrinking economy" (Sept. 21) I offer this analysis, based on the facts, of state aid for independent higher education.

In the current fiscal year, Maryland has appropriated about $1.3 billion for higher education, including about $45 million in aid to independent (private, nonprofit) colleges and universities through a program known as the Sellinger Program. The vast majority (83 percent) of the Sellinger funds are used to provide financial aid to Maryland residents who are enrolled at one of 16 state-aided independent colleges and universities. The balance of Sellinger aid is used to support state-established goals for higher education, such as bringing academic programs to underserved areas of the state or meeting state workforce shortages.

If Sellinger aid were not available, many Maryland students would attend in-state public universities, a more expensive taxpayer option, or leave the state altogether, taking their tuition dollars and talents with them. To illustrate this point, consider the taxpayer costs per degree awarded. Based on the most recent data available, state taxpayers pay $36,000 for each degree conferred at a public university, compared to $6,000 for each degree conferred at an independent college or university. Furthermore, public universities are not open-enrollment institutions, are not located in all geographic regions of the state, and do not provide every academic program. To do so would be cost-prohibitive for state taxpayers. Simply put, state support for independent colleges and universities is in the best interests of the taxpayers of the state. Furthermore, Maryland voters understand and support this partnership.

Last week, Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies released the results of its recent statewide poll of Maryland voters. Sixty-one percent of Maryland voters support using private institutions to provide public services in higher education and health care to save taxpayer dollars. That same poll found that among state voters, 64 percent say that Maryland should continue its partnership with private colleges to provide higher education services at low taxpayer costs. According to the Gonzales report, 57 percent of voters say Maryland's investment in its private colleges and universities is an effective use of taxpayers' dollars.

Support for the "private option" for higher education transcends political parties with 62 percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independents saying Maryland should continue its partnership with private colleges. Furthermore, support for the program comes from every region of the state -- Eastern Shore, Baltimore City, Baltimore suburbs, Washington suburbs and Western Maryland.

The future strength of our state and nation is fundamentally linked to America's ability to advance knowledge, innovation and entrepreneurship. Therefore, it is imperative that Maryland support an effective and efficient system of higher education utilizing public and private institutions to meet the state's higher education needs. For more than 225 years, Maryland's elected officials have understood the efficacy of a public-private partnership to provide higher education services. Particularly in challenging fiscal times, the Sellinger Program is smart public policy.

Tina Bjarekull, Annapolis

The writer is president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association.