Thousands of Maryland community college students could get free tuition under last-minute bill

Thousands of students seeking degrees and professional certificates at Maryland community colleges could be eligible for free tuition from the state under a compromise the General Assembly passed in the final minutes of its 2018 legislative session.

The legislation calls for the state to spend $15 million a year to award scholarships worth as much as $5,000 to low- and middle-income students who are beginning their community college educations. The measure also proposes about $2 million over five years in grants for current students who are close to finishing degrees at community colleges and four-year institutions, worth up to one-third of their tuition.

“This investment is going to pay dividends for everyone in our state,” said Sen. William C. Smith Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who supported a more aggressive proposal to establish an endowment to cover the costs of community college tuition. “It’s a fantastic start.”

Gov. Larry Hogan has not indicated whether he will sign the measure. While the Republican governor has railed against the legislature for mandating new state spending, Hogan has also promoted investment in education.

The governor is "committed to helping more students achieve their educational goals and will closely review the legislation," a Hogan spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The legislation reflects a trend that has become popular across the nation and in Maryland. Similar programs exist in Allegany, Garrett, Somerset and Wicomico counties.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh launched a program in December for city public school students who want to attend Baltimore City Community College. It pays the portion of tuition costs not covered by grants and loans for an associate’s degree or certified job training program. The program does not cover room and board. An estimated 200 to 300 additional students are expected to attend community college under the Mayor’s Scholars Program, which is estimated to cost $1.5 million per year.

And Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Hogan in November’s election, announced his own version, called College Promise. It is estimated to cost about $1 million the first year and rise to $2.3 million a year.

Nationally, concerns over rising student debt led to free-tuition proposals from former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. Maryland’s proposal is similar to one adopted in New York last year; Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota have also created free community college programs in recent years.

Tuition for a typical full-time course load ranges across the state from about $3,200 a year in Baltimore to nearly $5,000 in Montgomery County, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. The average statewide in-county tuition and fees for Maryland’s community colleges was $4,324 in fall 2017, according to the association. Students also have to pay for books, other materials and housing.

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat and professor emeritus of business at Morgan State University, said he was struck by the tens of thousands of dollars of loan debt his students carried.

Turner, the legislation’s sponsor, said tuition assistance could help stimulate the economy and job market by freeing up students financially.

“It’s important that we give them an opportunity to become part of the American dream and go out and buy houses and raise families,” Turner said.

To be eligible for community college scholarships, students would need to enroll within two years of finishing high school or a GED, hold a high school grade point average of at least 2.3 out of 4.0, and take at least 12 credit-hours worth of courses. Students who are single or live in single-parent families could not have a household income of more than $100,000 a year, while students who are married or live in two-parent households could not have a family income of more than $150,000.

Any other scholarships or financial aid would be credited toward tuition bills before applying the new scholarships, dubbed the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarships. The program takes care of “the last dollar” needed to ensure someone who wants higher education but can’t afford it can still pursue studies.

“We think were accomplishing what the private sector is calling for, and also taking care of college debt,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat who proposed similar legislation.

Research supports the idea that offering more financial aid can increase the likelihood that someone completes a credential or degree, which then increases the person’s earnings potential, said Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.

Lawmakers said it took hectic negotiations over the final hours of the General Assembly’s annual 90-day legislative session to adopt the new program, with the House of Delegates supporting a $10 million budget for the program and the Senate pushing for $30 million. Turner, who is retiring after a 24-year career in the House, called the bill the second-most important of his tenure, after legislation to help adopted children and their relatives reunite.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said that while he considered the $10 million price tag appropriate, he thought the final agreement of $15 million a year was a fair compromise.

“It’s certainly a benefit for kids without the means to be able to continue their education at the community college level,” Busch said. “I think it’s a great program.”

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