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The "browning" of Maryland will affect college completion [Commentary]

Significant demographic obstacles stand in the path of the state's achieving its goal of ensuring that 55 percent of its population has a two-year post-secondary degree or higher by 2025.

The baby boom "echo" — a primarily white phenomenon that resulted in a temporary increase in high school graduates beginning in 1995 — is over. The number of white graduates is now declining steadily and will continue to do so for some time to come.

During the upturn, many campuses raised their admissions standards significantly to take advantage of the growing pool of relatively affluent and well-prepared students graduating from high school. The challenge for many campuses now will be to change from becoming more exclusive to becoming more accessible to increase educational attainment among low-income and first-generation college-going students. This will not be easy.

Maryland's outgoing Secretary of Higher Education, Danette Howard, and the Maryland Higher Education Commission are to be commended for highlighting the issue, which has received far too little attention and makes many higher education leaders and public officials uncomfortable — that is, the significant changes that have been and will continue to take place in the composition of the state's college-age population.

Whites are decreasing in number and being replaced, to a large extent, by Hispanics and African Americans, who already account for 44 percent of public high school graduates. It is the changing racial and ethnic composition of the college-age population, many of whom will be from low-income families, that has impacted, and will continue to impact, the higher education system in Maryland.

As the president of Morgan State University, an institution that traditionally has served a significant number of minority, low-income and first generation college students, I can attest first-hand to what the future will look like to many, if not most, of our campuses. While we have many exceptional students who would be successful at any university in the state and nation, we also work very hard to graduate other students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to complete a degree. We carry a lot of the heavy lifting for the state and have returned gigantic dividends on the investments made in us over the years. But if the state is to be successful in educating the majority of the new students it will see in the coming years, the following four things must increase:

Need-based financial aid for students. With the shift to a less-affluent student population, need-based financial aid will be critical to their college success. But the size of the current aid program is inadequate to start with. An indication of the burden this places on my institution is that each year we reallocate 25 percent of our tuition, or about $16 million, to student financial aid and still cannot meet the demand. The administration of the aid should also be decentralized to the campus level as opposed to being handled by MHEC.

•Aid to campuses that can produce more graduates in STEM and other high priority fields. Shifting demographics mean that programs in which minorities are under-represented will be threatened with decline or elimination. Additional support of institutions capable of maintaining or increasing degree production in fields of importance to the state would help to reduce the impact of changing demographics on these fields.

Funding for summer and other transition programs that prepare recent high school graduates for college-level work. One thing we have consistently found at Morgan is that when we offer sound pre-college programs for under-prepared students, they perform and graduate at the same rate as students who did not require supplemental work.

Incentives for students to begin at a community college and complete an associate degree before transferring to a four-year campus. Such students get an affordable education for their first two years of college, and they usually have a higher graduation rate than the typical student entering a four-year campus as a freshman. At Morgan, we recently began such a program in which we will award students who transfer to us with an associate degree up to $2,000 per semester for up to four semesters.

These suggestions are intended to begin a statewide discussion on concrete approaches to dealing with the issues identified in the state's new higher education plan. The bottom line is that the aspirations included in the state plan will simply stay at the aspirational level if we don't start a serious dialogue around how to achieve concrete results.

David Wilson is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. His email address is david.wilson@morgan.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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