The legislation, approved by the General Assembly in the final minutes of the 2018 session, 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. It is a last-dollar program, meaning the state would cover tuition left over after factoring in other scholarships and grants.
To qualify, prospective students must enroll in one of Maryland’s 16 community colleges within two years of finishing high school or obtaining a GED. Students must take 12 credit hours of courses and have a high school grade point average of 2.3. Lawmakers estimate the program will cost $15 million a year. It will go into effect in 2019.
In fall 2017, the average in-county tuition and fees at Maryland’s community colleges was $4,324, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. Tuition ranges from $3,196 a year in Baltimore City to $4,974 in Montgomery County for local residents.
The legislation provides an additional $2 million in grants over five years to help current college students complete their degrees at area community colleges and four-year institutions, a boost in funding that could cover up to one-third of their tuition.
“We’re delighted,” said Bernard J. Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. “As much as this is an opportunity for students to afford a postsecondary experience, it is also an investment in Maryland’s economy. You have to have a skilled workforce and folks with a knowledge base, and this provides that opportunity.”
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, 69 percent of Maryland jobs will require some form of postsecondary education. About 37 percent of adults in the state have not pursued higher education.
States across the country and political spectrum are paying greater attention to college costs as more local employers demand postsecondary education. More than 200 programs at the municipal and state level cover the cost of tuition, according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
California, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee have statewide free community-college programs, with Tennessee’s model lauded as a viable path for reducing higher-education costs. Last year, New York became the largest state to offer tuition-free public higher education at its community colleges and four-year universities.
Several counties in Maryland, including Allegany, Garrett and Somerset, already have similar tuition programs in place for local residents. Beginning this year, Baltimore will cover community college tuition for students graduating from its public schools, with grants kicking in after all other scholarships are taken into account.
Momentum for debt-free college has been building for years, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton elevated the issue of college affordability with proposals during the 2016 presidential campaign to make public higher education free for most American families.