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Why 3,000 people are still waiting for Maryland’s community college scholarship

Montgomery College is among Maryland’s community colleges witnessing a decline in enrollment this fall. The state’s signature community college scholarship program has a waitlist of 3,000 people as a result of a funding cut. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

After a lackluster inauguration, Maryland’s community college scholarship rebounded with an influx of applicants this year. But funding for the tuition-free program fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic as the state scrambled to cover the cost of combating the coronavirus.

Now, a program that barely registered with residents in its first year has nearly 3,000 people on a waitlist in its second — and $3.5 million less to spend. The demand outstrips what the state says it can supply as the public health and fiscal crisis is far from over. But the economic devastation unleashed by the pandemic makes the scholarship even more critical for Maryland residents enveloped by the recession.

The loss of funding for the Maryland Community College Promise scholarship arrives at a difficult time for the state’s community colleges. The schools are contending with their own budget cuts and a decline in fall enrollment as the recession takes a heavy toll on the population they traditionally serve: students from low-income households.

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“Our students are the people working at your restaurants, they’re the ones working at your stores. Those students are exponentially impacted by this crisis,” said DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, one of Maryland’s largest community colleges. “We know that enrollment is probably going to continue to contract because students won’t have the money to go to school.”

Maryland is one of 30 states that cover tuition at community colleges, part of a national movement to use higher education to strengthen the local economy. College Promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly known, have resonated with elected leaders across the political spectrum, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to make them universal.

In Maryland, the community college scholarship provides up to $5,000 to students whose families earn less than $150,000 a year and adults earning less than $100,000. The state covers tuition left over after factoring in other scholarships and grants.

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Similar to the other state programs that have emerged in recent years, Maryland College Promise has had its share of growing pains. The eligibility criteria were complex and restrictive, some deadlines changed midstream, and students complained of not getting timely responses to their questions.

But this year was different. Advertising kicked off early, with community colleges, high schools and the Maryland Higher Education Commission reminding students throughout the year to apply. And legislative fixes to some requirements of the scholarship expanded the pool of applicants.

The program, which was exclusively focused on recent high school graduates, opened to adult learners. In a state where the average community college student is 25 years old, eliminating the age restriction is significant, advocates say. State legislators also ended a requirement that recipients live in the state after graduation for as many years as they receive tuition assistance under threat of the scholarship being turned into a loan that must be repaid.

Those changes yielded significant results. The higher education commission, which administers the scholarship, identified 16,100 eligible people based on their families’ reported income from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, or Maryland’s version of the financial aid form.

Of those who were eligible, 5,798 people qualified for the award because they had unmet need, meaning their tuition was not covered by other state or federal financial aid, according to the higher education commission. They were given until the end of July to submit a transcript showing they earned a grade-point average of at least 2.3 the first semester of their senior year in high school and completed high school or earned a GED.

Maryland cuts $413M in state spending but delays pay cuts for workers

But weeks before that July deadline, the fate of the scholarship took a turn. With Maryland facing a multimillion-dollar shortfall from the coronavirus pandemic, the Board of Public Works cut $413 million out of the state’s budget at the beginning of the month, including $3.5 million from the scholarship. That left $8 million in funding for the grant program and created a waitlist of 2,966 people — more than double the number of students awarded scholarships this time last year.

“The unintended consequence of trying to balance the budget is now we’re not meeting the need and the intent of the promise program,” said Bernard J. Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who championed an early version of the scholarship bill and the legislative fixes, said the program was a “victim of circumstances.” State lawmakers had approved $15 million for the first year of the grant, but the low uptake resulted in less funding for the scholarship this year. And then the pandemic siphoned off more dollars.

“Everyone is going to be in the cue for money given covid and the shortfall in revenue, but I don’t have to make a case for the need” to fund the scholarship, Pinsky said. “We have close to 3,000 people waiting in line.”

Maryland is in a better financial position than expected this spring, with revenue forecasts this week suggesting the state has enough money to avert deep budget cuts. There is no assurance the state’s improved financial outlook will translate into more dollars for the scholarship program, but the governor’s office is looking into the funding shortfall.

“State budget officials are working closely with the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and exploring options to help more applicants,” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan (R). “We’re very encouraged by the increased interest in the program.”

Sadusky fears the shortfall in funding for the promise scholarship contributed to the lower head counts at some area schools this fall. Enrollment is down at nearly all of Maryland’s 16 community colleges, reflecting a nationwide trend that has many in higher education worried.

College enrollment takes a hit this fall amid coronavirus

Community colleges educate some of the neediest students within higher education and their absence this fall could threaten the gains of the last several years in closing equity gaps. Preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found an 8 percent decline in enrollment at the nation’s community colleges. The ever-present health risks of the pandemic and the disproportionate economic impact on lower-income families are rattling the sector.

The loss of tuition revenue at Maryland community colleges is being compounded by reductions in state appropriations, which plummeted by more than $36 million dollars, or 13 percent, in the summer.

“I applaud the state for the commitment to small businesses and being the safety net for so many Marylanders,” said Pollard, of Montgomery College. “I also want them to keep in mind that post-secondary education is a part of that safety net.”

As it stands, the fall headcount at Montgomery College is down about 5 percent compared to the same time a year ago. One bright spot is increased enrollment in shorter, seven-week courses, specifically those focused on network technology and other disciplines that could lead to immediate work, Pollard said.

At Prince George’s Community College in Largo, President Falecia D. Williams also noted greater interest in accelerated programs, although the overall headcount is down about 4 percent. Students at the community college used every dollar of grant aid available to them this semester, an indication they are experiencing greater financial need, Williams said.

“There is a resource gap . . . that has put our students in a bit of instability,” Williams said.