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Sen. Ben Cardin speaks at a roundtable discussion, held at the Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus, about a proposal to make the first two years of community college free. (The Daily Record/Alissa Gulin)

Students offer conflicting views on free community college

Who would qualify and who would not?

Dua Raja, like many of her peers at the Community College of Baltimore County, is in favor of a federal proposal that would make the first two years of community college free for responsible students.

“I think this is a great idea for people who really want to go to college but can’t afford it,” said Raja, who is in her final semester at CCBC and has a scholarship as well as other financial aid. “There are some students who aren’t eligible for financial aid but still need assistance.”

But despite her enthusiasm, Raja and her some of her classmates are skeptical. They worry the quality of education could be affected if more and more students enroll at the school. They worry about how the program will be implemented — who will qualify and who won’t? Which academic programs would be acceptable and which would not?

“It’s a great proposal, but I have concerns,” Raja said. “Nothing is really free.”

Those conflicting emotions — skepticism and enthusiasm — were both on display Monday at a roundtable discussion led by U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, at CCBC’s Dundalk campus. Cardin met with about 20 students and CCBC officials to discuss the community college proposal and other college affordability issues.

Cardin has held several similar events at other colleges in the state, but this was the first since President Barack Obama announced his “America’s College Promise” proposal, which would use federal and state money to pay for two years of community college for all students who meet certain performance criteria.

Students who spoke up during the discussion offered heartfelt accounts of their own challenges in paying for college. Many asked questions about how the proposal would affect specific groups, such as veterans, or how it would interact with existing federal assistance programs, like Pell Grants.

At CCBC, 40 percent of students in for-credit classes received Pell Grants in fiscal 2014.

Cardin — who said he wholly supports Obama’s idea — emphasized that many of the students’ questions are currently unanswerable. No legislation has been filed in Congress yet, so the details are still far from clear. And any bills also face skepticism from Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress.

Several students raised concerns about how the program would be funded. If states are expected to contribute, one student asked, how can we in Maryland feel sure there’s enough money in state coffers?

Cardin responded that the federal government would pay the majority of the costs but emphasized that those details still need to be ironed out. He said there are several pools of federal funding that could be reallocated to pay for the program.

“Taxpayers spend a lot of money on higher education, but we think they’re spending it in the wrong place,” Cardin said, adding that he’d like for-profit colleges to be held more accountable for how they spend students’ money – some of which comes from federal financial aid.

Despite all the fuss, Cardin and others expressed serious doubts that the proposal will actually become law — at least any time soon.

“I would not plan your community college schedule based on this becoming reality,” Cardin said.

CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis, who said she supports the idea, also took a realistic view of the proposal’s chances of approval.

“We all have our doubts that this big idea will ever become a reality, but either way, it brings attention to the good work that’s done on the community college level,” Kurtinitis said. “And for us, that’s like getting a huge marketing budget for free.”

“I often think of [community colleges] as sort of the ugly duckling from the wrong side of the ivory tower,” she added. “So now, to really be embraced at a national level … it feels good to be validated.”

About Alissa Gulin

Alissa Gulin covers health care, education and general business at The Daily Record.