“Free tuition” programs like the one Maryland lawmakers approved this week are gaining national momentum, but many of the statewide initiatives are still too new for experts to say how they will turn out in the long run. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun video)

During the final minutes of Maryland's legislative session, the General Assembly approved House Bill 16, which establishes the Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship, a $15 million, need-based financial assistance program for students attending community colleges. While the legislation does not provide universal access to a community college for recent high school graduates like laws that other states have enacted, it shows that Maryland legislators are beginning to realize the value of community colleges.

Promise programs address the cost of community college and encourage students who have previously not enrolled to attend. Maryland's promise program is essentially about changing student behavior.


Typically, when state legislatures think about higher education, the image that comes to mind is that of a recent high school graduate seeking a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution while enrolled full-time and living on campus. That image is not supported by data. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, approximately 70 percent of undergraduate students have nontraditional characteristics, meaning they may have children, spouses and/or jobs.

Columbia,MD--4/13/18 - Pictures on the campus of Howard County Community College. Story about how free tuition in community college has become a national trend. DSC_4378.JPG Sun Staff photo by Lloyd Fox
Columbia,MD--4/13/18 - Pictures on the campus of Howard County Community College. Story about how free tuition in community college has become a national trend. DSC_4378.JPG Sun Staff photo by Lloyd Fox (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Nontraditional students are the majority of students at community colleges, where the average age of those enrolled is 25. Students at 25 have many factors to contend with, such as day care, jobs and other constraints on their time and ability to attend classes full time. Imagine being a single parent and going back to college to afford a better life for your family. Many are successful at juggling all that life places in their way. However, if these students could talk to their younger selves, I imagine their advice would be to go to college before the complications of life make higher education seem like an insurmountable challenge.

According to the Maryland Longitudinal Data Center, 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates do not enroll in college within one year of graduating from high school. Eventually, many of them do enroll, taking courses part-time, at night or when they can afford it. But making college affordable to recent high school graduates through HB16 will allow many of them to avoid those struggles, making it more likely they will successfully complete their degrees.

Research from the Mid-Western Higher Education Compact demonstrates there has been an increase in community college enrollment of 2 to 5 percentage points and an increase in completion rates by 12 percent in areas where promise programs exist (there are 56 such programs in the Mid-Western region). And such degrees are only going to become more important. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, which makes it all the more critical that Gov. Larry Hogan take action on HB 16.

Thousands of students seeking degrees and professional certificates at Maryland community colleges would be eligible for free tuition under a compromise the General Assembly passed in the final minutes of its 2018 legislative session.

Before this legislation, Maryland's need-based financial aid program was primarily used for students attending four-year institutions. The Howard P. Rawlings Educational Excellence Program, for example, awards only 12 percent of its $75 million to community college students; a total of $8.7 million according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission's most recent financial aid data. Meanwhile, 45 percent of federal Pell Dollars — Pell being a proxy for financial need — go to community college students. The additional $15 million of promise program aid for students who have the most need will help considerably.

For the broader economic concerns of the state, let's hope the governor signs HB16 into law so Maryland can begin the business of educating students sooner — and faster — and growing our economy.

Brad Phillip (BPhillips@MDACC.org) is director of policy analysis and research at the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.