A Real College Promise for Maryland

Michael Dannenberg

Over the next couple of weeks, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is apt to take a victory lap for signing into law a half-measure on college affordability: free tuition to any Maryland community college for state residents who enroll within two years of high school graduation or obtaining a GED.

In all likelihood, Hogan also will pump his expansion proposal to provide an additional two years of free tuition to any four-year, in-state public college for those who successfully complete community college with a minimum 2.3 GPA.

Don’t be misled.

Maryland’s plan doesn’t help folks complete college who need help most. Hogan’s expansion proposal to push further students into community colleges as a pathway to a four-year degree actually undermines completion. His plan doesn’t tackle the number one influence on college completion — inadequate high school academic preparation. And it fails to provide resources to two and four-year colleges to pay for proven reforms that boost degree completion.


The next Governor (either a re-elected Hogan or Democratic nominee Ben Jealous) should deliver “a real college promise” for middle and low-income students who want not only to enroll in a public college, but graduate from one. It should cover the total cost of attendance, be available at four- and two-year public colleges, and spur improvement in high school preparation as well as postsecondary institution quality.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s free college plan doesn’t pass the affordability test, because it only covers community college tuition and fees. Books, supplies, transportation, and living expenses add up to more than the cost of tuition and fees. In many cases, books and supplies alone, never mind living expenses, cost more than community college tuition.

Moreover Maryland’s free community college tuition plan is a “last dollar” program, meaning it only covers tuition expenses if they aren’t first otherwise covered by federal aid. Today, the maximum federal Pell Grant that goes to students in low-income families totals almost $6,100 – more than the price of tuition and fees at every Maryland community college.

So Maryland’s free community college tuition plan is basically only for the middle class. Needy students from low-income and middle-class families will still have to borrow for very sizable non-tuition expenses. The research indicates if they do and drop out, they’ll be four times more likely to default on a student loan than their peers who graduate.

Hogan’s expansion proposal to deal with these shortcomings and increase bachelor’s degree attainment is mainly to channel graduating high school seniors away from four-year schools into lower-priced community colleges. A real college promise program doesn’t do that.

Don’t get me wrong. Community college is a wonderful option for many students, particularly those pursuing short-term vocational certificates or an associate’s degree. It seems like a cost-efficient start for those who plan to transfer and get a four-year degree, which nearly 70 percent of postsecondary education students want, because community colleges charge lower tuition levels. But it turns out, the community college to bachelor’s degree path is a very steep one. In general, students who can avoid it are wise to do so.

A student who enrolls in a community college but is qualified to attend a four-year school is 30 percentage points less likely to complete their degree compared to an identical student who attends a four-year school.

Why?

Students lose 25 percent of credits when transferring from two to four year colleges. Those who struggle with the high school to college transition, as most students do, benefit from greater student support services at more generously resourced four-year colleges as opposed to two-year schools. And last, students surrounded by academically stronger peers tend to do better academically.

There is a critical need to ensure students with the talent, desire, and drive to attend a four-year college have the opportunity to do so uninhibited by inability to pay. Under-matching to attend a two-year school doesn’t work for most kids or our future.

Of greatest concern though is that too many new students are not ready to complete college on time, if at all. For most, high school isn’t rigorous enough.

Nationally, one in four students who immediately enters college upon high school exit has to take at least one remedial course. Contrary to conventional belief, nearly half of remedial students are middle class and nearly half attend four-year institutions as opposed to community colleges. Overall, they are 74 percent more likely to dropout than their non-remedial peers.

A real college promise plan is one that provides resources for high school reform policies like upgraded academic programs for all, one-on-one tutoring, and extended learning time during the school year and over the summer.

Finally, a real college promise plan invests in institution of higher education improvement. A number of colleges have invested in new initiatives that are improving student outcomes.

The University of Maryland (UMD), for example, has shown introductory courses can be redesigned from “sage on the stage” operations to “flipped classrooms” where lectures are delivered at home on line and class time is used for problem sets and coached work. For Introductory Chemistry, UMD costs-per-student were reduced from $268 to $80 while the percentage passing with a ‘C’ or better rose from 50 percent to 70 percent.

True college access, affordability, and the reforms necessary to get better outcomes cost, but they pay off in the end.

Maryland is a relatively wealthy state. It shouldn’t try to do free college on the cheap. It should do it right.

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