Baltimore County's Kamenetz proposes free community college tuition for high school graduates

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Monday he wants to make community college free to some recent high school graduates, following the lead of the city and other regions around the country trying to make college more accessible to modest-income students.

The program, called College Promise, would make up any difference between what qualifying Baltimore County residents can get from grants and financial aid and the total tuition they must pay at the community college.

The plan would require approval by the County Council, where members are voicing strong support. It would cost the county about $1 million the first year and rise to $2.3 million a year in several years, Kamenetz said.

Similarly to a plan announced recently by Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, College Promise is designed to make college affordable for students who don’t have the money to attend college, even with financial aid. The cost of tuition and fees at the Community College of Baltimore County, which has three campuses, is $1,876 per semester for a full-time student. The county will be funding only a portion of that because most low-income students qualify for some grants and aid.

CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis said that under the program, students would need to have a 2.5 grade point average in a private or public high school, have graduated within the previous two years, and have a family income of $69,000 or less. Kurtinitis estimates that about 1,100 students would be eligible for the program, which would pay for classes toward an associate’s degree or for workplace and certification programs.

For some students, receiving free tuition will reduce the number of years to graduation by allowing them to attend full-time or at least work fewer hours to pay for tuition, Kamenetz said.

“We believe it will increase college graduation rates,” said Kamenetz, a Democrat in his final year as county executive who is now running for governor. He said a better-educated labor pool will make the county more attractive to employers, and help fuel economic growth. “We expect it to pay dividends for years.”

Students who would be eligible for the program are not typical of the 62,000 now attending CCBC — many of whom returned to college years after finishing high school. The county aid would be limited not only to recent high school graduates, but to those who don’t need remedial classes after graduation. In 2017, about 38 percent of county high school graduates who enrolled at CCBC needed to take a remedial English class and 59 percent needed a remedial math class, according to the college.

“This isn’t about giving anyone an opportunity,” said Kurtinitis. “This is about giving students who are college-ready an opportunity.”

County school system officials say fewer students every year are forced to take remedial classes before they begin credit-bearing courses. Baltimore County Interim Superintendent Verletta White said she believes College Promise will provide a new motivation for students to get serious in high school. “That will absolutely propel them forward,” White said.

Council members expressed enthusiasm about the plan Monday. “I am so excited about this program because it is something that will change people’s lives,” said Council President Julian Jones. “I think it is money well spent.”

If the plan is approved, Baltimore County will be among at least 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. New York, Nevada, Arkansas, Hawaii and Rhode Island have followed other states and passed free-tuition programs statewide in the last year. 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, San Francisco and Baltimore are making two-year degrees free for at least some students.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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