More than half of all Maryland college graduates leave school with more than a degree; they also leave carrying significant amounts of debt. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, Marylanders averaged about $27,672 when they graduated in 2015, the latest data available.
While that is lower than the national average, it is still quite a bit of money to be paying back, especially at a time when, while unemployment is low, wages can’t seem to keep up with inflation and the cost of living. Student loan debt can make it difficult to follow the natural progression of buying a house, getting married and starting a family.
On Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan announced several initiatives aimed at both relieving student debt and making getting a college education more affordable. A few are dependent on the governor being re-elected in the fall, while others go into effect immediately.
Obviously, in an election year, Hogan is announcing some of these initiatives as an alternative to proposals from his Democratic opponent for governor, Ben Jealous, who in May unveiled a plan “aimed at ending the student debt crisis in Maryland, ultimately putting the state on a pathway to tuition-free college.” Jealous’ plan would be financed by increasing the state’s cigarette tax and increasing income taxes paid by state residents earning more than $500,000, according to Baltimore Sun reporting. It’s unclear how much Jealous’ plan would cost Maryland taxpayers.
Hogan — should he be re-elected — plans to reintroduce the Student Debt Relief Act as emergency legislation on the first day of the 2019 legislative session in January. This legislation would allow Marylanders to deduct 100 percent of interest paid on student loans from their tax return. The Hogan administration introduced similar legislation two years ago, but it never made it to the floor for a vote. The governor’s plan would also expand recently developed Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship program, which provides free tuition to qualifying residents, to include four-year state colleges. The administration also plans to double the deduction for families participating in Maryland 529 savings plans from $2,500 to $5,000.
One of the more immediate initiatives launching now is known as “SmartStart,” which combines the SmartBuy housing program with a SmartWork program created with an executive order, and SmartSave, a sort of catchall for financial aid programs for furthering education.
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The SmartWork initiative will offer state assistance to repay student loans to Maryland state employees working in positions where there are currently shortages, such as nurse, correctional officers and IT professionals. Parents in those positions who are paying down their children’s student loans would also qualify for assistance.
But the SmartBuy housing program may be of particular interest to young people interested in buying their first home in Carroll County who may have been deterred by student loan debt. The SmartBuy program allows them to pay off debt through the purchase of a home through the Maryland Mortgage Program financing.
“Traditionally, those in their 20s and 30s would account for a substantial share of Maryland’s first-time homebuyers,” Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford told The Aegis in 2016 when the first homeowners using the SmartBuy program settled on a house in Harford County. “But we’ve seen a little difference in that demographic over the years and it’s believed that student loan debt is part of that challenge.”
The caveat for the SmartBuy program has been that the buyer must purchase from select homes designated by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, limiting the available inventory. Beginning Aug. 6, thanks to a $3 million expansion of the program, SmartBuy will give homebuyers an opportunity to purchase any home in Maryland that meets the MMP guidelines while eliminating up to $30,000 in student debt.
In a place like Carroll, where we’ve heard lots of stories about how difficult it can be for young people starting out to purchase a home, this should be welcome news. (It’s also worth noting that one of the properties available under the current iteration of the program is a two-bedroom townhouse in Mount Airy.)
It’s hard not to like a program that puts people on the path to homeownership while also providing relief from the burden of student loan debt.
We would encourage potential buyers interested in the expanded SmartBuy program to start getting prepared now before it goes into affect in August, as interest is understandably expected to be high. Visit http://mmp.maryland.gov/SmartBuy to check eligibility requirements and get information about certified SmartBuy lenders. To learn more about any of the other SmartStart programs, visit SmartStart.Maryland.gov.