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Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County since 2005, speaks during the May 22 topping-off ceremony to mark the near completion of the Math and Science Hall on CCBC's Catonsville campus.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County since 2005, speaks during the May 22 topping-off ceremony to mark the near completion of the Math and Science Hall on CCBC's Catonsville campus. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda)

Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said earlier this week that she supports President Barack Obama's proposal announced on Jan. 8 that would make community college tuition free, calling it a "bold stroke."

"I went to sleep on Thursday night aware of this and I woke up Friday morning feeling like it was Christmas again," said Kurtinitis on Jan. 12.

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The college leader has attended four summits in the past year organized by the White House, along with hundreds of other leaders in K-12 and higher education.

"His plan does nothing more than initiate a dialogue around the issue of access to higher education," she said. "If some version of it does see the light of day, it will be a great day."

The White House estimates the plan could save a full-time community college student $3,800 in tuition per year on average and benefit approximately 9 million students each year.

In order for students to be eligible, they will be required to:

attend community college at least half-time,

maintain a 2.5 GPA,

make steady progress toward completion of their degree.

"Community college should be free for those willing to work for it because, in America, a quality education should not be a privilege that is reserved for a few," Obama said in a speech at Pellissippi State Community College last Friday.

Obama's nationwide plan, named America's College Promise, is modeled after Tennessee Promise, signed into law by the state's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to provide free community and technical college tuition to students for two years.

A similar program is offered in Chicago by the city's mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff.

"If a state with Republican leadership is doing this and a city with Democratic leadership is doing this, how about we all do it," Obama said.

However, the question remains of how to fund the program, which comes with a price tag of $60 billion over 10 years. The White House said the federal government will pick up 75 percent of the cost and the rest will be picked up by states who adopt the program.

"I am aware as anyone of the challenge of the funding, but I think the concept is bold and has the potential to really impact the economy in a meaningful way," said Kurtinitis, who oversees three main campuses in Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk, in addition to several campuses around the county.

The college is the largest provider of higher education and workforce development training in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to information on its website. In Fiscal Year 2015, more than 68,000 students were enrolled as part-time, full-time or non-credit seeking students.

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Kurtinitis said because community colleges already exist, it may be less of a challenge to fund such a proposal.

"There is money out there that could be redirected, retagged, reframed with some different criteria, so it is less of a new thing that has to be paid for. I think some redeployment of resources at both the state and federal level could meaningfully make this possible," Kurtinitis said.

Expanding access to higher education for moderate and low-income families could also provide a boost to the state economy, Kurtinitis said.

"If you open up that access, you will ensure students will be prepared for the job market," said Kurtinitis, adding that 96 percent of students stay in Maryland after they graduate.

"They participate in the community. That's really an extraordinary economic wink."

Associated Press reporters Nedra Pickler, Kimberly Hefling and John Mone contributed to this story.

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