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The state must do more to fund community colleges | READER COMMENTARY

COVID-19 presents our elected officials with an opportunity to correct longstanding inequities in higher education funding during the upcoming legislative session. COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for some of our most deep-seated societal shortcomings, making them impossible to ignore going forward. While there are many structural imbalances in our economy, the state can create a more equitable future for Maryland by helping more low-income people and people of color find their place in Maryland’s knowledge economy. Nearly 60% of community college students are nonwhite, and nearly 35% receive a Pell Grant, demonstrating financial need.

We are now at a point where the resources we receive from the state will not equal the challenges we have been tasked with accomplishing unless there is a change. According to the American Institutes of Research, after accounting for the differences between research universities and community colleges, the differences in funding spent on instruction is striking: $39,783 for public research universities and $14,090 for community colleges (all sources of funding). There is no more money to squeeze out of students, they simply cannot pay more in tuition to make up this imbalance. And neither can local governments. If the state does not fully grasp the role it has to play in helping fund community colleges, it will only pay in other ways, which will have a deleterious impact on our revenues.

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Community college funding needs a course correction, particularly through supporting fully the Senator John A. Cade Funding formula, which Maryland’s community colleges are funded through. It was designed to provide parity in funding based on what the state allocates to Maryland’s public four-year institutions. That policy goal is to provide 29% of the same level of funding it provides to the public universities. The idea behind this funding model is for the state, the county and the students to each pay roughly a third of the cost.

For 24 years, Maryland’s community colleges have attempted to reach this goal without success, hurting the most vulnerable populations in our communities as a result. The state has an opportunity to fix this funding inequity once and for all by not repeating the same mistakes from the past. In 2008, when the state fell into another economic downturn, the legislature pushed the funding goal out over a decade, where it is slated to reach full funding by 2023. Now that we are in the midst of another economic downturn caused by COVID-19, that goal seems even further out of reach at a time when students need support the most. Community college funding should not be viewed as a budget outlier with a larger than normal percentage increase from the previous year. This micro budgeting perspective is shortsighted and fails to acknowledge the larger macro policy goals of preparing those in our state for the workforce.

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The good news is there are very few states that have universal support for a funding mechanism as does Maryland. Every Maryland community college president is in agreement that full Cade funding is the solution for how to fund postsecondary education. The presidents have been patient and have acknowledged there will be challenges to achieving full Cade funding. Maryland’s legislature has been a tremendous supporter of postsecondary education, but due to the pandemic, there is little room for error in funding postsecondary education and preparing the 21st century workforce.

Brad Phillips is deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

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