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Hogan wants to expand tuition-free college program

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wants to expand a new scholarship program that will allow some students to go to community college tuition-free.

On Monday, he said graduates of the College Promise program should be able to also attend four-year public state colleges at no cost.

Maryland would become the second state, after New York, to guarantee free tuition for bachelor’s degrees for certain students who meet income and other eligibility requirements. The proposal is one of three initiatives, totaling $386 million over five years, that the governor is pushing to make college more affordable and reduce student debt.

Free college tuition is a centerpiece of the campaign platform of Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger this November. For the past year, Jealous has touted his plan to allow all Maryland high school graduates to attend community college ­tuition-free and create a work-study program that would pay students at the four-year public colleges the equivalent of their tuition so they can graduate debt-free.

Jealous said he would pay for the programs with a 1 percent tax on the top 1 percent of earners and savings from reducing the prison population by 30 percent.

On Monday, Hogan appeared to dismiss his opponent’s proposals as unrealistic and not helpful to those already in debt.

“We’ve heard some unrealistic and empty promises made recently to future generations of college students,” he said during a news conference at the Universities at Shady Grove campus in Rockville. “But these pie-in-the-sky, high-cost proposals fail to take into account the hundreds of thousands who are already making crushing payments each month on their student loans.”

Hogan said none of his plans will involve a tax increase, and because of Maryland’s improving economy he would not have to cut another program to pay for them.

College Promise, which begins next year, will cost the state $15 million annually, and in the expanded form that Hogan is proposing would cost an estimated $175 million over five years.

Hogan said he also will introduce legislation next year to double the deduction on state income taxes from $2,500 to $5,000 for those who participate in the Maryland 529 college saving plan. A separate bill would allow Marylanders to deduct 100 percent of the interest paid on their student loans. Jealous dismissed Hogan’s tax-deduction proposals as “election-year gimmicks that would do very little to actually make lives better,” noting that tuition at state colleges has increased more than 10 percent since the Republican took office.

The already approved College Promise program provides scholarships of 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, and the legislation instructs the Maryland Higher Education Commission to prioritize need in distributing the money.

The program includes requirements that supporters say will encourage students to graduate faster but proponents say will limit the number of students who are eligible. Participants must enroll in one of Maryland’s 16 community colleges within two years of finishing high school or obtaining a GED — requirements that could shut out adult learners. Part-time students, who comprise the lion’s share of the community college population, may also not be eligible, because students must take 12 credit hours of courses to qualify.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who has pushed for tuition-free college for years, dismissed Hogan’s effort to expand College Promise as a blatantly political move. Pinsky said the governor “was nowhere to be seen” when the Democratic-controlled legislature worked to create the program earlier this year.

Hogan signed the bill into law after it passed on the final day of the legislative session, but he did not take a position on the proposal while it was pending.

“All of a sudden, a few months before the election, he’s jumping on the bandwagon,” Pinsky said.