Pugh's plan for free community college gets warm reviews

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s proposal to provide free community college for all Baltimore public high school graduates is being met with widespread support on Baltimore’s City Council.

Council members consider the $1.5 million the mayor says is needed to pay for hundreds of students to attend Baltimore City Community College a relatively inexpensive proposal in a nearly $3 billion operating budget.

“It's bold and innovative,” said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, chairman of the council’s education committee. “I respect the mayor for bringing a thoughtful new idea to the table. We should push for even more.”

In releasing an anti-crime plan this week, Pugh announced that she planned to offer free community college starting with the graduating class of 2018. Many observers said they were surprised by the mayor’s announcement, but welcomed it.

“We believe that we do have a responsibility to help our young people go to college," Pugh said. “We believe that is a step in the right direction in terms of investment in our young people."

Since much of community college tuition is already paid for through federal grants, the city would generally need to cover only a few hundred dollars per student under the mayor's plan, budget analysts say. About 92 percent of community college students already receive Pell Grants, which pay for the bulk of their tuition.

“I am very pleased with Mayor Pugh’s willingness to support Baltimore City students and Baltimore City Community College in such an aggressive manner,” BCCC President Gordon F. May said in a statement. “She has instilled a higher level of hope, expectation, and motivation in the Baltimore City atmosphere.”

Efforts to make community college free have gained momentum across the nation, particularly as the cost of four-year colleges soars out of reach for many families. Baltimore will be one of 200 programs in 40 states in which tuition and fees for community college students are waived, particularly for recent graduates, according to the College Promise Campaign, which advocates for the expansion of such programs.

Just since the beginning of the year, New York, Nevada, Arkansas, Hawaii and Rhode Island have followed other states and passed free-tuition programs statewide. Tennessee led the way and established a program in 2014 as a way to boost economic development and workforce training.

Cities are also embracing the idea. Boston, Los Angeles, Houston, Wichita and San Francisco are making two-year degrees free.

“I think policymakers and lawmakers realize that a high school education isn’t going to get you a 21st-century job,’” said Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise group.

Lester Davis, spokesman for Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Young is enthusiastic about the proposal.

“He thinks it’s a game changer for sure,” Davis said. “Anytime you have a proposal on the table to take away one of the greatest barriers to secondary education, that’s huge. It positions Baltimore as a national leader.”

Davis said Young believes the plan could give parents a reason to keep their kids in the city school system.

“This is a recruitment tool,” he said. “Parents know the kids can get an associate’s degree free of charge. This initiative will pay for itself many times over.”

Warren Deschenaux, the top analyst for the state’s legislative services department, said his office crunched the numbers and believes it would cost the city about $1.7 million to fund free community college in the program’s first year. The costs would grow to about $3.4 million in the second year to cover all 3,800 students attending, he said.

Deschenaux said the proposal has the potential to increase the student population of the college by several hundred. More students could mean more costs for the state-run institution, he noted

“I don’t know how overburdened the faculty is currently,” he said.

Gov. Larry Hogan said he hadn’t yet been briefed on the proposal. But standing next to the mayor at the State Center on Thursday, Hogan agreed with her that it is important to tackle the long-term causes of crime.

“We want to look at any long-term strategies to provide more opportunity and better education,” he said. “We’re also focused on what can we do immediately to stop the shootings and the amount of violence and these terrible drugs that are being dealt.”

BCCC administrators estimate that the mayor’s plan could sharply increase the number of city high school graduates enrolling at the college.

In 2016, only 250 recent graduates went to the community college, but that might double to 500 or potentially increase to 1,000, said Bryan Perry, chief of staff for the college. The average age of a BCCC student is 28, an indication that many students delay attending.

The college expects to have to add staff and other resources to handle the additional students, Perry said.

Many of the community college’s students are already eligible to receive federal Pell Grants of up to $5,920 per year, more than the cost of full time tuition of about $2,500 for two semesters. However, students often need assistance with the cost of books and supplies.

“We serve some of the neediest students,” Perry said. The average income of the neighborhoods where students live is around the poverty level, he said.

Although Pugh and May have spoken about the broad outlines of the program, specific details must be worked out. For instance, about 90 percent of BCCC’s students are required to take remedial classes in math or English before they are allowed into credit-bearing courses.

Perry said he was not sure whether the city will pick up some of the cost of those remedial classes. In addition, some students are taking vocational classes or classes that lead to a professional certification but not a degree. The city will have to decide whether it will cover those classes.

City Councilman John Bullock, who sits on the education committee, called Pugh’s idea “worth considering.” He said he’s interested in seeing how she proposes funding the plan.

“We should be serious about investing in graduates from our Baltimore city schools,” he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, a frequent critic of the mayor, praised the idea and suggested charging $1 for people to ride the free Charm City Circulator bus to pay for the plan.

“It's something that’s very needed,” he said of Pugh’s proposal.

Several members of the City Council have clashed with Pugh in recent months — specifically over her veto of a $15 hourly minimum wage bill and her support of a one-year mandatory jail sentence for gun offenders.

Councilman Kris Burnett opposed Pugh on both those measures, but endorsed her latest proposal.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “We should definitely be trying to create any and every opportunity for people to better themselves. This is how we should be investing our money. … It’s a little short-sighted to believe only police can address crime. At the end of the day, many people enter that lifestyle out of the need to put food on the table. The more means we can give them to do it legitimately is a good thing.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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