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The mayor's free college and FAFSA programs are a big deal; here's why

When applying to college, there are two things most families dread: figuring out how to pay for it and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Under the leadership of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh (“Baltimore mayor launches start of free college program,” Dec 13), Baltimore is tackling both of these issues. She is making Baltimore City Community College free for graduating Baltimore City public high school students through the Mayor’s Scholars Program. And a number of events are being held around the city at which families and students can get one-on-one assistance in completing the FAFSA.

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Investing in Baltimore’s young people is critical to creating a stronger and safer city with greater opportunities. This is why the mayor announced the Mayor’s Scholars Program as part of her violence reduction plan. The more accessible higher education is, the more likely our young people are to get a degree and achieve meaningful employment that pays well. This, in turn, leads to greater economic opportunity, which will ultimately break the cycle of poverty and violence. The Mayor’s Scholars Program does just that by ensuring that cost will no longer be a barrier for our kids to obtain a college education.

Tiera Jones, an 18-year-old high school senior, knows this struggle first-hand. She said recently during a press conference hosted by the mayor that she’s encouraged that the Mayor’s Scholars Program will lead to more students pursuing higher education.

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Ms. Jones, who was raised by a single parent, said that her mother, who’s worked for the Maryland Transit Agency for more than 30 years, recently suffered an injury that led to a decrease in pay. Ms. Jones worries about the financial burden her attending college might have on her mother and said that the mayor’s free college tuition program comes at just the right time for her family.

“I want my mom to think of my dream,” of attending college, “as an accomplishment and not just a struggle for financial stability,” she said.

The Mayor’s Scholars Program is designed to help students like Ms. Jones and many others who might pursue a different path. The initiative will cover certificate and job training courses, as well as programs that result in an associate’s degree. The mayor correctly recognized that not every student will want to get a college degree, but will, nonetheless, need some sort of post-secondary education. Jobs are increasingly requiring specialized training and skills. Students will be able to obtain certificates tuition free for a wide range of in-demand jobs, such as coding, cyber security, paramedic training, accounting, patient care, and training as pharmacy technicians.

The mayor also recently hosted the first of several workshops to help students complete the FAFSA, a cumbersome and complex federal form that for too many students serves as an initial barrier to post-secondary education.

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But, to obtain financial help for a college education, one must fill out the dreaded FAFSA. This cumbersome, invasive, and complex form is a barrier for many students and families. In Baltimore, according to public school officials, nearly 50 percent of high school seniors fail to complete the FAFSA.

To combat this problem, professionally trained staff spent the day Saturday providing students and their families one-on-one help completing the FAFSA.

Combined, these programs help address the burden of paying for college and the complexity of filling out the federal form that serves as the gateway to a college education for most students.

But more importantly, these programs provide hope to children in Baltimore and to their families that a lack of financial resources won’t stand as a barrier to receiving a quality education.

Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore

The writer is president of the Baltimore City Council.

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