Serena Jones was like many high school seniors when she graduated from Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women earlier this month — stuck at a crossroads between accumulating thousands of dollars in student loan debt to attend college and leaving school altogether.
Now, she is one of more than 500 Baltimore City high school graduates who will attend Baltimore City Community College for free this fall.
Jones, 18, was among the newly arrived BCCC freshmen who packed the school’s gym Monday for the first day of a seven-week orientation course designed to prepare them for the academic and social challenges of college. Some students arrived with tearful parents and others came alone. Those who couldn’t fit into the rows of folding chairs lined the gym's black-and-red bleachers.
Mayor Catherine E. Pugh launched The Mayor’s Scholars Program in December. The scholarship will waive tuition and fees at BCCC for Baltimore City public schools graduates — regardless of grade-point average or income. The Mayor’s Scholars, however, include many who are first-generation college students, come from low-income households or have learning disabilities.
The inaugural class will have 542 students, exceeding the mayor’s stated expectations by nearly 300 applicants.
“What often happens for many of our young people is that parents don’t push us toward college because they can’t afford it,” Pugh said in an address Monday morning to the first-year students. “Young people don’t reach for college because they can’t think about it or they cant afford it. So there’s no excuse in Baltimore because we want all of our young people to be successful.”
The students will spend their seven weeks enrolled in three courses, as well as boot camps for English and math, in an attempt to combat staggering rates of remediation. During the 2015-2016 school year, more than 96 percent of BCCC students needed to take remedial coursework, according to the most recent data provided by the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The city will pay for students in the Mayor’s Scholars Program to attend remediation courses if they need them, BCCC President Gordon F. May said.
For Jones, the Mayor’s Scholars Program was a difference maker. She was accepted into Coppin State University, and had hoped to attend, but the cost of tuition seemed unmanageable.
She also wasn’t sure if she was prepared.
“I didn’t think I was completely ready for a four-year institution,” said Jones, who plans to study biology and nursing at BCCC so that she can become a labor and delivery nurse. “This is a first step to that.”
Jones applied to BCCC after hearing about the program from one of her peers at the Greater Baltimore Urban League. She’s decided to use BCCC as a “stepping stone” to achieve her dreams.
Mayor’s Scholars can use their scholarships to pursue one of BCCC’s associate’s degrees, certificates or job training programs. Coppin State University has offered to provide two years of free tuition to Mayor’s Scholars who graduate from BCCC as part of its “Finish 4 Free” program.
Baltimore is now one of 200 programs in 40 states in which tuition and fees for community college students are waived, particularly for recent graduates, according to the College Promise Campaign, which advocates for the expansion of such programs.
“But we need to move the conversation to completion and support to completion,” said Tisha Edwards, president of BridgeEdu, a Baltimore-based organization that supports first-generation college students. BCCC has enlisted the help of BridgeEdu to match each Mayor’s Scholar with an adviser.
Ja’Nel Stemper, 18, and Devon Aro, 19, are both first-generation college students. They just graduated from Baltimore Design School.
“We don’t have to worry about money,” Aro said. “You wonder: ‘Where are we going to come up with this money?’ This is going to help a lot of kids.”
“With this many students, it’s definitely going to have an intergenerational, positive impact on Baltimore City,” said May, who will retire at the end of this week as BCCC president after a challenging tenure that included reaffirming the school’s accreditation after it was placed on warning status in 2015.
Much of community college tuition is already paid for through federal grants. About 92 percent of city community college students already receive some type of federal aid. But the city will front the remaining costs that can be a barrier for students.
Pensie Holman said a series of financial troubles kept her 20-year-old son, Aaron, from starting college.
“It was one thing after another,” said Holman, a nurse who used to care for her brother and mother. “It’s been a long journey for [her son]. I’m excited that he’ll be continuing his education.”