The body overseeing higher education in Maryland unveiled a new four-year plan Wednesday intended to help serve the low-income, first-generation and nontraditional students that make up a growing segment of the academic population.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission's plan is also meant to push the state toward Gov. Martin O'Malley's goal of increasing the proportion of college-educated Marylanders to 55 percent by 2025.

"We realize that in order to have the workforce that we need to meet the demands of our economy … we have to look beyond those students who have traditionally comprised our graduation cohorts," said Maryland Higher Education Secretary Danette G. Howard.

Howard, who is leaving for a new job in Indiana and had her last day as secretary on Wednesday, described the plan as "ambitious" in part because it addresses what both public and private colleges ought to do. It also calls for the creation of transitional courses for 12th-graders who aren't ready for college.

Other proposals include a marketing campaign targeting older adults, new scholarships for people who dropped out of college with only a handful of classes left to finish, and a "reverse credit" that students could transfer from a four-year institution to a community college and obtain an associate's degree.

The plan calls for institutions to adopt "philosophical shifts" in what they believe a college student should be.

The commission focused on gaps in academic achievement, both between white and minority students and between wealthy and low-income students. The report warned that the state will fall short of its goals if those gaps are not narrowed, as more low-income, black and Latino people are expected to enroll in college.

The MHEC unveiled the new report at the campus of Coppin State University, where a group of about a dozen high-achieving students gathered with higher education officials to discuss the challenges and opportunities that come with college education.

Coppin President Mortimer H. Neufville called the state's focus on access and affordability "critical" for the historically black university, which has a large share of students from Baltimore public schools and those who need remedial education.

"Our students, they are in the 27-28 age range. Many of them have to work, so if the state intends to provide resources for financial assistance for students who cannot afford college, I think that would be a tremendous help," Neufville said.

Kazim Ackie, a 22-year-old freshman at Coppin, said he is often "fading in and out," as he works full time at night while balancing a full-time chemistry and biology course load.

Ackie, who lost his hearing in high school and has a cochlear implant, said his tuition is covered by scholarships but that he works as a security guard at a bank to provide for his 2-year-old son. He said the state's plan was a sign officials realize more students face significant challenges in finishing college.

"It's going to transform it for the students who have to work," he said. "I believe they're realizing that a lot of people are coming back to school, and it's growing. We cannot ignore it anymore."

When the goal to have 55 percent of adult Marylanders hold a degree was announced in 2009, the rate was about 44.4 percent. That figure rose to 45.4 percent in 2012 and Howard said it is now about 48 percent, which she said was ahead of schedule for the long-term goal.

But last month, officials at the University System of Maryland, which includes 11 of the state's traditional public universities, expressed skepticism that the state could reach the goal without significant improvements in the system's enrollment, which is expected to decline for the next two years.

Last fall, the state's community colleges collectively experienced a 2.5 percent drop in enrollment, the first decline in more than a decade.

The state's plan also calls for a greater focus on data collection to improve the way educational outcomes are tracked, studies into how financial aid is awarded through grant programs and the possibility of changing the definition of a full-time student so students are not left out of aid programs.

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