Despite its exemplary commitment to higher education, Maryland must do a better job helping black, Hispanic and lower-income students succeed in college, says a report released Friday by University of Pennsylvania researchers.

"Although the state has recognized the problem of disparities," write Penn professors Laura Perna and Joni Finney, "Maryland lacks a coherent set of public policies to ensure that more children are prepared for, attend and complete college."

The study notes that only 33 percent of the state's black residents and 20 percent of its Hispanic residents between the ages of 25 and 34 hold at least an associate's degree, compared with 51 percent of white Marylanders in the same demographic. Only 29.5 percent of adults in Baltimore hold at least an associate's degree.

Perna and Finney warn that given the state's demographic trends — especially the rise of its Hispanic population — Maryland must improve on these figures if it is to have any hope of meeting Gov. Martin O'Malley's goal of 55 percent college completion by 2025.

The report "reinforces the urgency of the challenges we face," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state's university system.

Kirwan said the keys to improving performance for black, Hispanic and low-income students are investment in early childhood education, intervention at the middle-school level and the adoption of uniform standards for college readiness.

The study's concerns mirror those expressed by the state's higher-education leaders. Though they say they have been grateful for O'Malley's steady support during the recession, they have warned during budget hearings that the state's long-term goals are in peril if funding does not increase sharply in the next few years.

"We're going to do what we can with any resources we have," Kirwan said. "But if these are our goals, the state is, fairly soon, going to have to become a partner in increasing our capacity."

The report on Maryland is part of a study of higher-education policy and performance in five states, which also include Illinois, Texas, Washington and Georgia. Commissioned by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Institute for Research on Higher Education, the study is meant to illuminate policy strategies that might improve college completion.

The report praises the working relationship between the state's elected and education leaders, and says, "Maryland has done a better job than most other states at slowing the increase in college costs."

It shows that in comparison to the other four states, Maryland has less distance to go to meet its college completion goals. But Perna and Finney question whether the state has a plan to improve graduation rates in the face of a weak economy.

Without such a strategy, they write, "higher-education reform is in danger of stalling."

Maryland already has most of the pieces it needs to improve college readiness and completion, said David Spence, president of the Southern Regional Educational Board, a nonprofit group that has worked with the state on its education plans. "We just need a great plan to bring all this together," he said.

Spence said the state might benefit from legislation that would create unified college-readiness standards across K-12 schools, community colleges and four-year universities, and would hold schools accountable for completion rates.

Kirwan said he would welcome such legislation.

"One hurdle," Perna and Finney write, "is that Maryland currently bases its funding for higher-education institutions on enrollment, rather than providing strong performance incentives that could encourage these institutions to improve academic preparation and college completion."

Kirwan said he favors looking into performance-based funding but said it would be wrong to hold every school to the same standard. "The challenge is to find the right kind of metrics to take into account the different missions of institutions," he said.