Should college be free? The answer is complicated. Nineteen states, including Maryland, have adopted College Promise programs that ensure some or all of their community college students will not be saddled with debt upon completion of their program of study. Those who support College Promise programs make the case that while a high school degree was the pathway to a middle-class job in 1923, when Alaska became the last state to adopt universal high school, it is now mostly a passport to minimum wage employment.

"We know that a K-12 education is a strong foundation to move into different areas of work," says DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College. "But to step into jobs that support lifestyles to which we've become accustomed to as a nation and allow lower-income students to access the middle class, a certificate of training or associates degree from a community college is a necessity. The data is compelling. Sixty-five percent of American jobs in the next year will require some college compared to 28 percent in 1973."

Neither Virginia nor the District of Columbia has adopted College Promise programs.

"Not all promise programs are created equal," says Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign in Washington, D.C. Some, such as Tennessee's, are universal. Others, such as Maryland's, have income restrictions. In Maryland, if a student is single or lives in a single-parent household, the income limit is $100,000. If a student is married or resides in a two-parent household, the income limit is $150,000.

Ensuring that College Promise programs are accessible to both low- and middle-income students, which Maryland has done, is key to their success, says Harry Holzer, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and the LaFarge SJ Professor at Georgetown University. "One of the things that has propelled the free college argument forward … is that, in fact, it is a bit of a middle-class entitlement program," Holzer says. "Means-tested programs are better targeted and more efficient but, politically, less popular."

The Maryland College Promise, adopted by the state legislature earlier this year, will take effect in fall 2019. The state will budget $15 million annually for grants of up to $5,000. Considered a last-dollar scholarship, funds are awarded only after all other financial aid is calculated. The measure also allots about $2 million over five years for grants to help cover tuition for older students who are close to finishing their degrees and need financial help. Pollard expects that about 4,000 of the college's 60,000 students will be eligible for the program.

While there are pros and cons to Maryland's College Promise, Pollard says she is pleased that "the legislature heard us that Maryland needed to commit to students at the lowest economic threshold. This promise acknowledges that it is far better for us as a society to be educated than not."

Where Maryland's promise program excels is in covering vocational certificates. "A lot of students coming out of the bottom third of their high school classes are not equipped right now to get associates degrees," says Holzer. "They could be better served by a certificate program in a field with labor market value."

Pollard concurs. "A high school diploma does not mean college ready," she says. "We're working with K-12 teachers to bridge that gap. Our job is to be accessible and meet students where they are and put them on a pathway … If they ladder short-term certificates in areas such as cybersecurity or the health sciences, they can have a successful career."

Where Maryland's legislation falls short is in its restriction of aid eligibility to full-time students and their need to be continuously enrolled. "About 65 percent of our students attend part time," says Pollard. "I do anticipate we will see some increases in full-time enrollment. There will certainly be some students who move from nine to 12 hours to take advantage of the program, but I worry about their success." She notes that many Montgomery College students have full-time jobs, are parents or are caring for elderly parents.

An obstacle that the Maryland law doesn't address is the associated costs of attending college. Tuition is only about 20 percent of the cost for a student attending community college, according to Tiffany Jones, who directs the higher education policy team at The Education Trust.

Maryland's College Promise "doesn't take into account the full cost of education, what it costs to live and go to college," Pollard says. "It lacks context. Montgomery College will continue to arrange private philanthropy to close that gap."

Under the Maryland law, for students to be eligible, they will have had to graduate high school within two years with at least a 2.3 out of 4 grade point average (GPA) and maintain a 2.5 GPA at a community college. "We need to recognize that our students have complicated lives," says Pollard, "and that if they have to take time off or do not do well in a course and it brings down their GPA, that should be accommodated." Maryland will provide scholarships for up to five semesters per eligible student.

That said, the Maryland law requires that scholarship recipients be employed in the state for at least one year for each year that the grant was awarded. Otherwise, the scholarship converts into a loan.

A concern to those who worry about free tuition at community colleges is the reallocation of students. There is a suggestion put forward that "encouraging students who could be going to four-year schools (to attend community college) … may well put them on a lower trajectory. This is in part because of articulation agreements (transfer policies) that make it so difficult for two-year students to go to four-year schools, which would then put them on a higher trajectory," says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, an independent, solution-oriented think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.

Research shows that students who want a bachelor's, but start at a community college, are less likely to complete the degree. It's not clear why but researchers speculate that four-year colleges don't have adequate supports for transfer students.

Whether community colleges in Maryland will be able to adequately support the influx of students under the new College Promise program is a question. Their ultimate success will depend on financial and academic counseling. "It's not just a matter of giving students access but giving them the supports they need," says Kantor.

'We will continue to be aggressive in helping students access money and provide them with the support they need to be successful at Montgomery College," says Pollard.


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Karen Finucan Clarkson is a Bethesda freelance writer and a newly minted empty nester.