(Juana Arias for The Washington Post)

Passage of the Maryland Dream Act, which is Question 4 on the ballot, would give undocumented immigrant students the right to pay in-state tuition at a community college once they’ve completed three years of high school in Maryland.

There’s strong support for the Maryland Dream Act: 59 percent of Marylanders support the law and 70 percent of African American Maryland residents support the legislation. This support is well-founded, as the passage of Question 4 in Maryland would benefit not only Latinos but also immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa among other parts of the world.

The passage of Question 4 will invariably improve our K-12 and higher education systems. Firstly, though Hispanic students graduate at a rate 15 percentage points lower than their white counterparts (73 versus 88 percent), Question 4 has the potential to lower the Hispanic dropout rate. A study conducted by Education Week concluded that lowering the cost for higher education motivates students to stay in school rather than drop out. At a time when President Obama is calling for an increase in community college enrollment in response to a skills gap that leaves STEM jobs unfilled, the rising cost of higher education has created a barrier to entry for too many Marylanders. State aid to Maryland’s community college students now represents only 21 percent of tuition; it represented 33 percent in 1991. Reducing the burden on tomorrow’s college graduates can make all the difference for the next generation of Marylanders.

We are certainly in need of tools to reduce the burden of entry to institutes of higher education. We have a prevalent and growing achievement gap in Maryland at the K-12 level that can be positively influenced by the ability of all of our students to feel they are able to access a college education. Organizations such as MarylandCAN: The Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now and CASA de Maryland work to expand opportunity for all students, and there’s much work to be done. The Hispanic-white achievement gap in our state ranks 38th out of 46 states. Maryland’s achievement gap between Hispanic and white eighth-graders in math is three grade levels and growing. In 1990, the Hispanic-white achievement gap was 11 percentage points, but by 2010 it had grown to 29. The black-white achievement gap is even worse. The MarylandCAN annual State of Maryland Public Education 2012 report found that on the 2011 National Report Card, only 18 percent of Maryland’s black students in eighth grade scored at least a proficient on the math exam, compared to 56 percent of white students. The 38-point performance gap has grown by nearly 20 points from 1990, when the gap was only 19 points.

As Maryland seeks to be competitive regionally, attracting and retaining tomorrow’s cyber security agents, nurses and electricians is key. According to a 2011 study, enrollment of Hispanic students in community colleges is down 8 percent from 2010.   Question 4 incentivizes current high school students to stay in school and also encourages young people who dropped out of high school to earn a General Education Development (GED) credential, because the reward of an affordable college education awaits them. The long-term benefits of education have been proven time and time again. A recent University of Maryland Baltimore County study estimates that Maryland will reap $66 million in economic benefits from passing the Maryland Dream Act.

 The impact of passing legislation similar to the Maryland Dream Act is being felt in the 13 states that have passed similar laws. In Texas, passage of a Dream Act is estimated to lead to five dollars of economic benefits over time for every dollar invested in higher education. MarylandCAN firmly believes “great schools change everything” and that as dropout rates decline and K-12 achievement rises, quality of life improves for everyone.

Dropout rates and quality of education have always been a predictor of housing prices, quality of health care, crime rates and job creation. Passage of Question 4 will lower dropout rates and encourage more students to stay in school and excel, improving our public education system for a growing population.

The 2010 Maryland School Assessment (MSA) reported that 57 percent of Hispanic students and 46 percent of black students met the proficiency benchmark in eighth-grade math while 81 percent of white students did. We are moving in the wrong direction in Maryland, but passing Question 4 can be our opportunity to change course. It is our opportunity to say to Hispanic and black children that when you work hard, we will work hard to make sure you have an opportunity to earn a college degree.

Maryland already invests so much in our children, and we need to protect that investment and double down on our economic future by keeping talent in our state. Question 4 is not a Hispanic issue or a black issue; it’s a Maryland issue, and voting for Question 4 is good for all of us

Curtis Valentine is executive director of MarylandCAN. Gustavo Torres is executive director of CASA de Maryland.

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