Free college?

Baltimore officials are considering applying to a program that would cover the tuition expenses for any city graduate attending one of Maryland's public colleges and universities. The program promises a free college education to every city student who finishes high school, no strings attached. As a way of creating new opportunities for thousands of Baltimore young people trapped in the cycle of poverty, it's an enormously intriguing idea, but one whose implications need to be carefully thought out.

As The Sun's Erica Green reported this week, the national Say Yes to Education organization has asked Baltimore to submit a plan for local political, educational and philanthropic leaders to collaborate on ways to help city students graduate from high school and enroll in college. If the city's proposal is accepted, the group would help create a scholarship endowment fund of $80 million or more to pay students' tuition at any state institution of higher learning, regardless of need. Young people from low-income families could also receive full scholarships to dozens of private colleges.


Such a fund could dramatically improve the chances that more Baltimore public school students have access to higher education that prepares them for success in life. But it also raises a host of questions about how it fits in with other efforts aimed at improving the quality of life for city residents and whether it's the kind of intervention that would make the most difference for the city, given the investment of public and private funds it would require; the city would have to have at $40 million in the bank to get the program off the ground.

This program is a moon-shot sort of idea, and realistically, Baltimore's civic, philanthropic and community leaders can't devote the resources and attention to many of those at the same time. Is this the right one, or should the energy go toward efforts to desegregate housing, expand drug treatment, establish universal pre-K, build state-of-the art recreation centers or renovate the dilapidated school buildings that will remain even after the current plan to pump $1 billion into the district's facilities?


Moreover, when it comes to setting priorities, does it make sense to award college aid to everyone, regardless of income, or should the scholarships be limited to only the neediest? Low-income students already have access to federal student loans, but those must be repaid. On the other hand, how do you ensure that money meant to help the poorest students doesn't end up mainly benefiting those who already have the means to pay for college?

City and education officials see the program as a way to grow Baltimore's population, in line with Ms. Rawlings-Blake's goal of bringing 10,000 new families to the city over the next decade. Would the prospect of a free college education for their kids lead more middle-class families to send their children to the city's public schools? That's one way to bring greater racial and socio-economic diversity to the system as well as more support from parents invested in their schools' success.

It certainly would be better for Baltimore's reputation to be known for sending all its young people to college rather than as a struggling city in decline. Yet would parents actually make decision about where to live based on that? And how long would a student have to be in the city schools to be eligible for a scholarship? These are all questions that require careful study before officials can be confident a scholarship fund would actually move the city forward in measurable ways.

The biggest hurdle, of course, would be raising the money needed to fund the scholarships. Syracuse and Buffalo, the only two other cities that have partnered with the Say Yes to Education project, put their own money up to start programs, but Baltimore probably would need to rely heavily on private support from wealthy individuals and foundations. It's a lot of cash to raise in a short time, but if it attracted thousands of new families to the city it might turn out to be a good investment. These are all the kinds of issues city officials need to ponder if they are to make the best decision regarding this admittedly unexpected but fascinating new development.