Maryland budget cuts to higher education could mean staff shortages, financial aid reductions

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The $186 million in cuts to higher education approved last week by the Maryland Board of Public Works will likely cause faculty furloughs, pay cuts and reductions in student financial aid, school officials said.

Nearly half of the $413 million in state budget cuts resulting from the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic will affect higher education. The reductions will affect throngs of Maryland colleges and universities, including the University System of Maryland and the state’s community colleges and private schools.

The health crisis, meanwhile, has forced these same institutions to implement far-reaching safety measures aimed at protecting their campuses if students return in the fall. They must now work to balance their plans against this wave of cuts — and prepare to face another round in the future.

The state’s university system, which is made up of about a dozen different campuses including the University of Maryland, College Park, is facing $117.3 million in cuts. Meanwhile, about $55 million of the higher education cuts are aimed at the Maryland Higher Education Commission, including $10.5 million in cuts to private universities, $36.3 million in cuts to community colleges and reductions in scholarship programs for students.

The drop in higher education funding also comes after some universities in the state’s system reimbursed students for room and board fees last semester when campuses abruptly shut down and others pledged to freeze tuition and fees until after the virus abates.

“We did not want to bring additional financial pressure on students and families that are disproportionately being impacted by COVID-19,” said David Wilson, president of Morgan State, who said the university was the first public institution in Maryland to announce it would not raise tuition and fees during the pandemic. “That’s the price we’re willing to pay to keep our students in school.”

Instead, Wilson said the $8.9 million in cuts aimed at Morgan will have to come from its faculty and financial aid dollars. The institution will not be able to bring in as many adjunct professors — forcing full-time faculty members to take on more work — and will eliminate about $1 million in financial aid awards.

“The best position for Morgan to be in would be no cuts,” he said, adding that he had initially prepared for a $10 million reduction from this state this round. “If we could get back to where we were, pre-COVID, Morgan will be once again climbing rapidly that ladder of ascension to being one of the top 10 urban research institutions in the county.”

Morgan has a goal of to be reclassified from a Research II to a Research I university within the next 10 years, Wilson said, which would make it the second public university in the state to earn that designation aside from the University of Maryland, College Park (Johns Hopkins University also ranks as a Research I university). The rankings indicate which schools conduct the highest levels of research.

But the budget cuts could threaten that.

Wilson said he hopes the state will bring in more federal dollars so Morgan and the other institutions do not “lose momentum” toward their goals.

Willie Flowers, president of the the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, said cuts to historically black colleges and universities like Morgan are an extra burden given that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed settlement money bound for those same schools in May.

Citing costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan vetoed a bill that would have required Maryland to pay $580 million to HBCUs in order to settle a lawsuit alleging that the state government made decisions detrimental to the institutions.

“The settlement was a solution to the neglect over a period of years,” Flowers said. “And he vetoed that. And to add insult to injury, he is reducing funding from some of the same institutions, so it’s bad form and bad policy.”

The Board of Public Works, which approved the statewide budget cuts, is made up of the Republican governor as well as Comptroller Peter Franchot and state Treasurer Nancy Kopp, both Democrats.

The University System of Maryland’s $117.3 million in cuts will be divided among its 12 institutions, and an email sent on behalf of the university system said each school will communicate its own budget decisions.

The system and its institutions have have already instituted a near-freeze on new hires, eliminated vacant positions, cut non-personnel discretionary spending, and deferred future construction projects and maintenance of facilities, the email said.

Patrick Moran, president of the largest union for state employees, said, so far, many colleges and universities in the state have been “absolutely negligent in their duties to inform employees about what’s going on,” and have not discussed what the cuts could mean for union workers.

The cuts have been made hastily, Moran said, especially given that affected institutions such as St. Mary’s College have accepted financial support from the federal government and others have funds on reserve.

“You’re going to add cuts, which means you’re probably going to try to eliminate positions, which is going to add to the unemployment rolls in the state of Maryland,” said Moran, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “When you’ve got money that you can use for tough times, well, these are tough times.”

On his second official day as University of Maryland president, Darryll Pines said at a news conference that the university’s deficit is about $118 million, a direct result of costs related to the coronavirus. Maryland issued partial refunds to students for room and board, in addition to other fees.

“We think we are going to be able to handle it,” he said, adding that there would be furloughs and pay cuts. However, he said he wants to “make sure that no person is laid off to the best of our ability.”

He also said he doesn’t want some of the lower-paid employees, such as housekeepers and facilities workers, to “suffer any harm.” An announcement on how the university will adjust to the budget deficits will be released in the next several weeks, he said.

Baltimore City Community College is facing $3.2 million in cuts, which Debra L. McCurdy, the college’s president, called “huge” — amounting to 8% of BCCC’s budget.

The institution hasn’t yet determined what it will cut, McCurdy said, but tuition will not increase.

“We will be doing everything here to avoid those types of cuts,” she said. “We probably may not fill some things. And we’re probably going to continue with our reorganization.”

The college had already been consolidating some of its departments, she said, bringing two departments under one director after vacancies arose, for example. That consolidation will likely continue in earnest as a result of the financial challenges ahead, McCurdy said.

Enrollment at BCCC has increased this summer, but it’s not enough to offset the budget cuts ahead, McCurdy said. About 4.7% more students enrolled in BCCC courses during the college’s summer sessions this year compared to last year.

Nationwide, cuts to higher education as a result of the pandemic are likely inevitable, said Terry Hartle, the senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

“Unfortunately, when state governments catch a fiscal cold, public universities often contract pneumonia,” Hartle said.

His organization is pushing the federal government to provide further aid to higher education institutions, he said.

“Because states have to balance their budgets, only the federal government has the resources to help alleviate some of the significant fiscal pain that is coming to colleges, universities and their students,” he said.

It’s too early to tell where Maryland falls among all 50 states in terms of its cuts to higher education during the pandemic, largely because many states are still ironing out budgetary decisions, and the pandemic’s course could alter financial decision-making, Hartle said. But so far, Maryland is likely in the “middle of the pack.”

“There’s some states that are in much worse fiscal condition,” he said. “There are other states that aren’t suffering quite as much.”

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