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What do Maryland community colleges offer? A lifeline for Maryland youth | COMMENTARY

After receiving her diploma, Raquel Laws of Ellicott City reacts to cheers from her family during Howard Community College's 48th commencement.
After receiving her diploma, Raquel Laws of Ellicott City reacts to cheers from her family during Howard Community College's 48th commencement. (KAREN JACKSON / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Everyone believes education is key to a better future. Not everyone understands how critical community colleges are in making this belief a reality.

I recently testified before the Maryland State Legislature about why we must increase funding to our community colleges, which is the opposite of what Gov. Larry Hogan is doing. The governor’s budget has slashed by half the $36.4 million that was expected under the John A. Cade Funding Formula, established in 1996 to provide community colleges with predictable funding and students with affordable tuition. Instead colleges will get around $18 million.

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After years of underfunding, we need to be increasing the state support for community colleges, not further eroding it. This budget cut would push the cost burden onto county governments and students. We cannot continue to balance the state budget on the backs of local governments and our most vulnerable students.

Our community colleges deserve better because they provide an invaluable service to our students and our communities. As an adjunct professor at Howard Community College, my perspective is personal, but not unique.

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There are many benefits to community colleges:

  • Community colleges offer access to education and career guidance. I was not the best student in high school, not necessarily because of a lack of intelligence, but because of a combination of poor choices and poor guidance. Upon graduation from high school, my grades did not allow me to even consider going to a four-year institution. Plus, I couldn’t afford the tuition anyway. It is a situation that is very common among Maryland’s young scholars, but should never disqualify anyone from a great education. Instead of giving up, community college gave me a path to my future. There I found a learning community teeming with inspiring scholars who would impact the way I viewed education, as well as myself as a scholar. I explored various subjects and discovered what interested me the most, and what career paths I might be able to pursue in those areas of interest. I found myself developing a passion for academics that would shape my journey throughout my college years and influence the path that I would eventually take to becoming a professor today.
  • Community colleges offer mentorship, support services and a more affordable path to the American dream for all students. Since becoming a community college instructor, primarily teaching public speaking, I have witnessed so many transformations in the self-images of so many of my students. Studies have shown that community college has a profoundly positive impact on the lives of the students who attend, and the communities that surround those institutions. From giving direction and purpose to underachieving and underserved communities of students, to providing affordable training to those who have been displaced in the recently volatile job market and seek new career paths, community college is essential in the fabric of American society as we try to bridge the growing gap between rich and poor.
  • Community colleges provide first-class instruction from dedicated faculty. I, like so many of my fellow adjuncts, put my dedication to the success of my students above so many other parts of my life. Students not only need well-maintained facilities, and well-organized support services, but they also need a dedicated cohort of professors who have the financial stability to remain focused on the success of their students, and not whether they should take up delivering for UberEats in order to pay their bills. Many adjuncts experience the same financial uncertainty that our students experience. Every month I must make the choice of either paying my everyday living expenses or making payments on my student debt. Doing both is not an option. How can an adjunct encourage students to follow through on their educational goals, when what those students see in the classroom are overworked and underpaid adjuncts?

Underfunding our community colleges is hypocritical to our values in Maryland, and it must change. Don’t say you value education, hang a $36.4 million dollar carrot in the face of those who need it the most, then chop it in half under the guise of balancing a budget. It is my hope that our lawmakers understand the true value of our community colleges, increase funding for our campuses and fully fund the Cade formula so that we can move closer to providing all Marylanders a chance at attaining that better life: the American Dream.

Steve Torres (torres.stephen@gmail.com) is an adjunct professor at Howard Community College and a member of Maryland Community Colleges United, SEIU Local 500.

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