Front-line colleges

Maryland's 16 community colleges are on the front lines of higher education - providing opportunities for advanced schooling to lower-income students, technical training for such badly needed professions as nursing, auto repair and computer services, and, increasingly, an academic bridge from the state's high schools to its costlier four-year colleges.

Almost half of all Maryland's undergraduates are at community colleges. Overall, almost 500,000 state residents will take at least one community college course this school year. More than 60 percent of this year's high school graduates who go to college in state will do so at community colleges.


Yet when it comes to most discussions of higher education in Maryland - and of state aid to higher education - community colleges are too often an afterthought.

Today, we hope that begins to change - with the first hearing before a General Assembly committee of a bill to improve the state funding formula for community colleges. This bill would begin to reverse the sharp fall in the state's share of the cost of running Maryland's public two-year colleges - a drop that resulted in a sharp rise of the share borne by students. Every state senator has signed on as a co-sponsor of this bill.


The current state aid formula for community colleges, known as the Cade formula, essentially is supposed to provide per student funding equal to 25 percent of that of the University of Maryland system. So when state funding for universities falls (as it did after 2002) or rises (as it will next fiscal year), state aid to community colleges follows.

But since 1996, when the Cade formula became law, the 25 percent level has been reached in only two years. Thus in the post-2002 downturn in higher-education funding, community colleges were cut twice - first by a fall in total university funding and second by receiving less than 25 percent of university funding.

With counties' share of community college costs holding relatively constant, the drop in state support was made up by the students, who disproportionately tend to be lower-income. Community college officials say recent increases in state financial aid to students have been welcome but insufficient. Community college students now pay a greater share of total college costs than when the Cade formula was approved.

Maryland's community college tuition ranks 11th-highest in the nation, about 40 percent higher than the national average - one of the main reasons the state ranks very low on college affordability. This bill - to raise the funding level of community colleges from 25 percent to 30 percent by 2012 - would be a firm step toward improving college accessibility and the quality of Maryland's work force and economy.

Yes, Maryland has one of the most educated work forces in the nation, but much of that stems from in-migration from residents educated elsewhere. This bill is an opportunity for the state to do much better by a big share of its own students, particularly those in greatest need of support.