Free community college in Baltimore: a good start, but not enough

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s recent proposal for a tuition-free Baltimore City Community College is an ambitious and promising conversation starter on the need for access to college programs in Baltimore. Removing the financial barrier for young adults to enter college is key to their success in continuing and completing college, and gaining academic and workforce skills that will lead to socio-economic stability for them and their families. For many people, meeting their goals may not be achievable without access to higher education.

Coppin State University's announcement that it will offer free tuition to students transferring from BCCC is yet another positive step— one that moves our state closer to the goal of free or affordable access to all University System of Maryland institutions.

However, in a state where over 500,000 adults are without a high school diploma (20 percent of them in Baltimore), quality — including proper funding for highly skilled, full-time teaching staff and the programs students need is just as important as access.

Here in Baltimore City, BCCC, which is operated by the state, holds tremendous promise, as was pointed out in a September 2016 report from the University of Baltimore’s Schaefer Center for Public Policy. Despite this, thousands of Baltimore City’s brightest minds are already paying more in nonresident fees to attend the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), thanks to CCBC’s greater number of program choices and exceptional learning outcomes.

If BCCC and community-based adult education providers (such as South Baltimore Learning Center and Strong City Baltimore’s Adult Learning Center) are to maximize BCCC’s great potential — ensuring teens and adults will enter without the need for first-year remedial classes — our city, state and federal governments must prioritize funding for adult education. They could look for guidance to nearby Washington, D.C., for instance, where the per-student cost averages about $10,000 per student. The per-student funding cost in Maryland is inadequate at about $800.

Dedicated funding would ensure adult educators are supported with the same full-time salaries, benefits and resources as our pre-K through 12 educators, instead of being part-time adjuncts doing excellent work with insufficient compensation. It would ensure 21st century classroom facilities and curriculum implementation that would produce college- and career-ready young adults and serve as springboards for 21st century jobs, a central component of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (which provides much of the current grant funding to community colleges and community-based education organizations for adult education programs).

Of course, we must also prioritize pre-K through 12 funding for Baltimore City so that more young adults are college and career ready, and graduating at grade level. We have the opportunity to do this through the work of the Kirwan Commission, which will make recommendations for the funding formula for Maryland’s public schools for the next generation. Adequate funding should be guaranteed for full-day pre-K, wraparound Community School services and after-school programs; the funding formula should also consider Baltimore’s concentrated poverty and change the way local wealth is calculated.

Investment in adult education causes a ripple effect for adult learners, their children and their communities: increased employment, achievement of life skills and community economic development. Yes, free tuition is a great start, but “free” can’t buy quality adult education or college and career readiness for our young adults — only increased state and federal funding can.

Regina T. Boyce is Director of Strong City Baltimore’s Adult Learning Center (ALC). Her email is rboyce@strongcitybaltimore.org. Owen Silverman Andrews is the ALC’s English Language Acquisition Instructional Specialist. His email is oandrews@strongcitybaltimore.org.

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