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First year students Huba Saleem, left, of Catonsville and Warda Fatima, right, of Catonsville wait outside their next class at CCBC on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. CCBC marks its 60th anniversary.
First year students Huba Saleem, left, of Catonsville and Warda Fatima, right, of Catonsville wait outside their next class at CCBC on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. CCBC marks its 60th anniversary. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Unfortunately, we live in an era in which middle-class families are plagued with the rising cost of college and mounting student debt. Their dreams of sending a child to college seem more like a nightmare as they contemplate how to manage higher education costs without piggybacking one loan upon another. Of the higher education partnerships, America’s community colleges are best equipped to help families find an affordable pathway to higher education. Nonetheless, cobbling together the resources to cover the cost of tuition to attend as a full-time student can still be a hardship for those trying to cover their basic needs.

Into this troubling and often challenging environment enters a national initiative known as the College Promise, advocating for associate degree and workforce credentialing at community colleges to be tuition free. The state will launch a Maryland Community College Promise Scholarship Program this fall, and several of us have promise programs in our counties. Now “responsible,” hardworking students who may have given up the thought of going to college due to cost have the opportunity to attend their local community college debt-free.

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More than 500 Baltimore City high school graduates will attend Baltimore City Community College for free this fall.

Oftentimes these students are from families who fall between the cracks: They make “too much money” to be Pell-grant eligible and yet too little to afford to send their children to their local community college full-time. We know their plight well: Students sign up for a course or two while working full-time as a barista, nanny, gas station attendant or tow truck driver. It is little wonder that the college degree for these part-time students becomes an elusive dream, requiring six or eight years to finish a two-year associate degree and many more to earn a bachelor’s degree.

I am proud to say that at the Community College of Baltimore County, we are working to change this narrative. In addition to the Maryland College Promise launching this fall, our students will be eligible for a Baltimore County Promise Scholarship, approved last year by the Baltimore County Council and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. This year County Executive John Olszewski Jr. has proposed expanding the promise program to more residents, increasing the income cap to $85,000 and raising the timeframe for eligibility to five years after high school graduation.

These promise scholarships are changing conversations around family dinner tables; college can be affordable. The impossible might just become possible. College Promise programs cover tuition and mandatory fees for eligible students after all other financial awards are applied. Students who receive these scholarships can use them toward earning an associate degree or short-term workforce credential.

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While community colleges are an incredible value, with tuition roughly half the cost of that of four-year colleges and universities, attending a community college for the first two years of degree work is still an investment that many struggle to afford. At the Community College of Baltimore County, the majority of degree-seeking students attend part-time and are juggling their studies with jobs, working 20 or more hours per week. And while 35 percent of CCBC students receive Pell grants, many students who are not Pell-eligible do not earn enough to handle the financial obligations of college. The launch of the Maryland Promise Program and the expansion of the Baltimore County College Promise program offer a much-needed lifeline for such students.

Ultimately, a promise scholarship is more than a “promise.” It is an investment in the social and economic well-being of our communities. And the best part of an investment of this sort is that we know that 92 percent of community college graduates will remain to live and work right in their communities. They get jobs, buy houses, pay taxes and send their children to local schools. They join the PTA, worship in local churches, shop at local supermarkets and serve on community boards and committees. This is money and talent reinvested in local communities. Promise programs enrich the lives of individuals and their families, but they also enrich our communities. That is the real “promise” in promise programs. And that is a “promise” that I hope we can continue to keep.

Sandra Kurtinitis (Twitter: @DrK_CCBC) is president of CCBC.

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