ANNAPOLIS —Maryland legislators may require state university system employees to start paying half the cost of tuition for themselves and their children to help solve state budget woes.
Right now, the roughly 21,000 University System of Maryland employees — from top brass to groundskeepers — and their dependents are entitled to free tuition. The proposal to cut those benefits in half is part of a plan from House GOP Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell to close an estimated $2 billion budget deficit. O’Donnell’s office says changing the tuition benefit would save the state $6.85 million a year.
“We have deficits as far as the eye can see,” said O’Donnell, who represents Calvert and St. Mary’s counties. “We can’t afford a lot of this stuff. It’s just something we can’t afford to pay for anymore.”
Sue Esty, assistant director of the Maryland chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the tuition remission program is a popular benefit that helps recruit and retain university staff. The federation represents 6,100 higher education employees in Maryland, Esty said, including clerical, security and maintenance workers.
“For many of them, their children will be the first generation to attend college,” Esty said. “They have so much hope and expectation built into this benefit. Some of them take advantage of the program to better themselves and their careers, too.”
The university system’s chief lobbyist, P.J. Hogan, said reducing the perk would put schools at a disadvantage with other area colleges that offer free tuition to staff. Many schools around the country offer free tuition to staffers and their dependents.
“It does not make us unique by having the benefit,” Hogan said. “By cutting it in half or eliminating it, that actually would make us unique and it would put us at a competitive disadvantage for recruiting and retaining staff, faculty and researchers.”
Leaders of the American Council on Education, a trade association for 2,000 public and private colleges and universities, largely agreed with Hogan. Terry Hartle, the group’s senior vice president, said his group’s research shows it is typically the lower-wage workers who take advantage of the tuition benefits.
“They think it’s going after the full professors, the presidents and chancellors, but there are a lot more people on university campuses making $60,000 or less than those making over $100,000,” Hartle said.
O’Donnell said he expected to hear opponents of his idea say the proposed reduction could affect recruitment.
“Their job is to look out for their special, particular interests and our job is to look out for interests of the entire state,” he said.
He added that he doubted reducing the benefit would affect the university’s ability to hire.
“Not in these times, there are plenty of people who would love to fill those positions,” O’Donnell said.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico, said some Democrats are considering O’Donnell’s tuition benefit reduction. But he said no decisions have been made yet.
“We’re going to look at everything,” Conway said. “Evidently, there are some folks that think this is something you ought to talk about.”