Several measures will be considered in the state legislature this year as Maryland attempts to catch up to other states that have committed millions of dollars for students to attend community college on free or reduced tuition.
Educators and legislators hope improving access to education will help the state fill the 80,000-plus job vacancies that require more training than a high school education.
“As of now, we are really not in the game at all,” Del. Frank Turner, D-Howard, told the House Ways and Means Committee last week. “We need to get on board. We need to be a player in (increasing affordability).”
Turner has sponsored one of several pieces of legislation this year that would work to help students attend community colleges. Other legislation, including proposals from Sens. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, and Ron Young, D-Frederick, have been proposed over the past several years.
Turner’s Promise Scholarships bill would use $10 million in state funding to provide a “last mile” scholarship to students. That means the money would go towards tuition that other financial aid, like scholarships, does not cover.
Under the current bill, any student who has lived in the state for more than 12 months and has a grade point average of more than 2.3 would be eligible to receive assistance up to $5,000 on a first-come, first-serve basis. The student would have to come from single-parent households making less than $100,000 or two-parent households making less than $150,000.
Students who do not work in Maryland for at least as long as they received aid would have their scholarship converted into a loan.
Many of the details could be negotiated before the bill ever comes up for a vote, but Turner said that was partially the point, calling the bill a “framework.”
“I want to reach as many students as I can, and if I have to do it by lowering the threshold for family incomes, I don’t have any problem with that,” Turner said.
States and other local governments across the country have instituted similar promise scholarships, including Tennessee, Oregon and New York. Five counties in Maryland — Allegany, Garrett, Prince George’s, Somerset and Wicomico — have programs in place as well. A Baltimore City program will start in the fall.
At Wor-Wic Community College, which serves lower Eastern Shore students from Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico counties, students from Somerset and Wicomico have been well-served by the programs, said Murray Hoy, the school’s president.
“It obviously has had a profound impact on that community,” he said.
Noting it was a small sample size, the number of first-time, full-time students from Somerset County at Wor-Wic increased 57 percent, Hoy said.
But these programs still have issues reaching everybody. Some students will turn down free tuition because they would have to go full time. Instead, they pay their way part-time so they can afford books. Those books can sometimes cost more than tuition, Hoy said.
Still, just a little aid can be enough to get more students into programs, said Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College. Too many students stop attending as soon as they have to start paying to attend school.
“The first thing they think about is, ‘How can we pay for this?’” she said. “We all are working with students every day who, but for $500 sometimes, have to make a decision that pursuing a college degree is not for them.”