If the goal of today's college students is to finish with as little debt as possible, Ifechukwudeli Okafor of Overlea is well on her way.
Thanks to the low tuition and financial aid at the Community College of Baltimore County, she told state lawmakers Wednesday, her first year of college has cost $164. That includes just $4 for second semester.
"That's versus my friends, who had to pay $25,000 to go to Frostburg," said Okafor, 18, who joined dozens of community college students in Annapolis for the annual Student Advocacy Day.
"Community college is affordable for everyone," Okafor said. "If you keep cutting the budget, it won't be affordable, and people won't be able to go to college."
The 21st annual Student Advocacy Day came as state funding for community colleges is expected to take a hit from lawmakers working to address a two-year budget deficit projected at $1.2 billion.
Community colleges — as well as four-year schools in the University System of Maryland — are already facing cuts recommended by former Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, before he left office.
The budget proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan, his Republican successor, suggests next year will be leaner still. The administration says future spending on community colleges will be capped rather than based on per-pupil spending mandates.
The average annual tuition for full-time public community college students in the state is $3,221, according to the Maryland Association for Community Colleges. Should the anticipated budget cuts materialize, the group says, the figure would increase by $178.
Howard County Executive Allen Kittleman, a Republican, wrote to Hogan Wednesday lamenting anticipated cuts at for Howard Community College, which he said could reach nearly $900,000.
"Howard County is known and sought after for its exceptional school system, libraries and community college," Kittleman wrote. "It would be disappointing to not be able to maintain some of our crowning achievements."
Students told legislators that low-cost two-year schools enable them to attend college. Many said they were accepted into four-year colleges coming out of high school but couldn't afford them.
Some, such as Howard Community College student Akbar Tolbert, lauded the proposal of President Barack Obama to offer two years of community college free of charge, but said he and others would probably be out of school by the time that could take effect.
Tolbert, 18, said he was accepted at the University of Maryland, College Park, Loyola University Maryland and Hood College but couldn't afford a four-year school.
"People just need to tell their life stories and what led them to go to community colleges," Tolbert said. "The stigma surrounding community colleges is that they're for students that didn't try hard enough, and that's not true. A lot of them can't afford a four-year school."
HCC President Kate Hetherington, who spearheaded Student Advocacy Day, said the efforts pay off.
Lawmakers "see me and other presidents all the time," she said, "but when [they] hear the impact of the community college experience on these students, that's what really makes a difference."
Republican state Sen. Gail Bates praised the students, but said lawmakers have a daunting task to tackle the budget while continuing to make education affordable.
"Right now, we have got to stop the bleeding," said Bates, who represents parts of Howard and Carroll counties. "We were spending more, year by year, than we've been taking in, and you can't keep doing that."
Democratic state Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County told students that the reduction might be addressed.
"We've got to restore the money," Muse said. "It's important we keep education funding where it is."
Students said they would continue to lobby for the funding.
"We need to write them after the fact and tell them that we need funding," said Baltimore City Community College student Bianca McNair, 21. "We need to make them aware of the problem by calling them, because they really do answer their phones."