Md. legislature makes higher education a priority

Op-ed: The Md. legislature makes higher education a priority this year.

With 81 bills related to higher education under consideration in the General Assembly this year, Maryland lawmakers have made improving accessibility, affordability and excellence in higher education a priority this session. Given that Monday is the "crossover date" when each chamber has to send to the other chamber those bills that it intends to pass favorably, Marylanders will soon find out whether the General Assembly is headed for the Dean's List or whether some legislators are in need of remediation.

From the highly anticipated University of Maryland Strategic Partnership Act of 2016 (HB 1607/SB 1052) that would merge the state's flagship campus at College Park with UM's professional schools in Baltimore to create a comprehensive research university and put Maryland on par with its Big 10 counterparts, to the College Affordability Act of 2016 (HB 1014/SB 676) that takes a comprehensive look at how to incentivize public and private investment in saving for college, the General Assembly is on track to pass significant legislation this year that have minimal costs but maximum impact.

Sen. Ed Kasemeyer, the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and a member of the Maryland Economic Development and Business Climate Commission (otherwise known as the Augustine Commission), noted that his college affordability bill (SB 676) was inspired by what he learned on the commission. In its final report, released in January, the commission said that the "affordability of higher education also remains a concern in Maryland as well as in the nation as a whole" and noted that Maryland is not "a low-cost state for higher education." To that point, the Federal Reserve reports that the average Maryland student loan borrower reported a balance of $28,330 — above the national average of $24,800 and the highest of any state, so college affordability in Maryland is indeed an issue that deserves closer attention.

To the General Assembly's credit, House Joint Resolution 1 — the first Joint Resolution introduced in the General Assembly this year — is focused on supporting the National Goal of Debt-Free Higher Education. This joint resolution, which has 70 sponsors in the House of Delegates, would express the General Assembly's support of the statewide and nationwide efforts to ensure that students have access to debt-free higher education at public institutions of higher education.

It is well understood how higher education has become the primary currency for achieving economic mobility in our nation and that, in general, the more educated a community is, the lower the incidence of poverty. In Maryland, while the statewide poverty rate is 10.4 percent — well below the national average of 15.5 percent — poverty rates range from a low of 5.9 percent in Carroll County to a staggering 25.5 percent in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. Not surprisingly, nearly 33 percent of adults who are 25 or over in Carroll County have a bachelor's degree, but in Somerset County, that statistic falls to a mere 15 percent.

In fact, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 66 percent of all jobs in Maryland will require some form of postsecondary education (with fully one out of every six jobs requiring a graduate degree) so the importance of making high quality postsecondary education widely available to Marylanders is critical to our state's competitiveness. The Augustine Commission noted, "Today, a high school graduate in America who ranks in the upper academic quartile but comes from a family in the lowest economic quartile has less chance of graduating from college than a youth ranking in the bottom academic quartile but having parents in the top economic quartile. This is not a circumstance that will provide the state with the human capital it will need to compete in the 21st century global economy where the fraction of jobs demanding higher education is rapidly increasing."

Since students who come from the lowest quartile in household income already have the lowest college-going rate and an even lower chance of completing a degree, the prospect of low-income students having to assume massive debt only serves to further inhibit them from pursuing higher education. Narrowing the college attainment gap is not only a moral imperative, but an economic one if Maryland is going to remain competitive in this increasingly knowledge-driven economy. By passing inspired legislation such as the College Affordability Act of 2016 — which is pending in the House via Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones' version of the bill (HB 1014) — the General Assembly will have taken a smart step in the right direction.

Greg Schuckman (gschuckman@verizon.net) served on the Maryland Higher Education Commission from 2011-2015.

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