Higher education has been a crucial driver of economic growth and job development for the past century. And Maryland's world-class universities aren't the only ones making a difference. Our economic future is tied just as much to the state's 16 low-cost community colleges where 500,000 students — about 50 percent of all state students enrolled in higher education — are served.

In Maryland, we rely on community colleges to address some of our state's biggest challenges. At a time when costs of college continue to rise and we need to upgrade the skills of our workforce, these open-access institutions keep college affordable, prepare workers for high-growth jobs and educate the majority of first-generation college students and future workers.


To help our community colleges meet these critical challenges, we must ensure that students are able to complete certificates and degrees and find quality jobs that will help them support their families. Increasing the number of students who earn credentials is a crucial factor in strengthening family financial success, the local economy and the overall community. However, too many students fail to achieve their goal, which has led to an unprecedented focus on finding ways to help people, particularly minority, low-income and first-generation college students, succeed in their studies.

Maryland's community college campuses have made significant changes that lead to better results for students. Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) was recently recognized with the prestigious Leah Meyer Austin Award by the Silver Spring-based nonprofit Achieving the Dream, a national community college reform organization, as the institution that has made the most progress in increasing student completion. Between 2010 and 2014, CCBC raised its completion rate by 55 percent through a combination of innovative academic programs (including revamped student advising, accelerated developmental learning in math and English and efforts to help faculty become more comfortable teaching students from diverse backgrounds) and high-impact student support services such as a new program to help students transition to college and learn crucial life skills.

Along with the need for academic support, many students also face financial challenges in completing their education. While community colleges are the most affordable option in higher education, many students are confronted with family and work responsibilities and struggle to keep their families fed while they attend class and work multiple jobs. Without stable income or savings, it doesn't take much — persistent, expensive car problems or not being able to find affordable child care — to divert students from their academic goals. That's why it's so important to ensure that students learn life skills as they transition to college.

One of the most important parts of CCBC's efforts has been to provide students with classes on financial literacy and money management. Part of a required student success course, the financial literacy component addresses practical issues such as how to manage money and plan for the future and reaches about 6,000 students per year. CCBC also created a financial coaching service for students who are struggling academically due to financial issues that was modeled after a service my company, Baltimore-based OneMain Financial, provides its customers. We also provide financial assistance to students nearing completion of their community college academic program and will provide scholarships through Achieving the Dream's National Reform Network to students at five community colleges.

As community college students work tirelessly to complete their education, we need to call to action our community and public agencies to work with colleges to give these students access to crucial resources that help them stay in school. As these institutions serve more of our students with greater needs, we need to find ways to coordinate our efforts to support them. Through our work with Achieving the Dream and a range of funders, including Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation and their Working Families Success Network, we've seen that when campuses are able to bring together support from a wide range of agencies and organizations — including social service agencies, food banks, financial services companies and their own student support services — students are more likely to complete their studies and make the first big step toward a solid financial future for them and their families.

Community college can be a path to upward mobility for our state's neediest residents. That's important for these students and their families, but given our growing workforce needs, it's also important for the future of our businesses, our economy and our state.

Mary McDowell is CEO of OneMain Financial. Her email is mary.mcdowell@citi.com.