Maryland’s Free Community College Initiative Gets Off To A Slow Start

Washington Post September 1, 2019 | Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

Maryland’s foray into tuition-free public higher education is off to a rocky start, with far fewer students than expected taking advantage of the state’s community college scholarship after a harried rollout of the program.

Last month, the state awarded its first round of Maryland College Promise scholarships to 1,278 students. Nearly 1,700 other students could receive money if they submit information missing from their applications. Still, that’s a sliver of the roughly 13,000 students the Maryland Association of Community Colleges projected could benefit.

“We’re disappointed in the numbers. No question about it,” said Bernard J. Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. “There is a population out there that we haven’t reached for one reason or another.”

Maryland is one of 19 states that cover tuition at community colleges, part of a growing movement to use higher education to strengthen the local economy. College Promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly known, have captured the attention of some Democratic presidential candidates who have pledged to make them universal.

The state programs that have emerged in recent years have faced their share of growing pains, with complex eligibility criteria, confusing messaging and application timelines that can undermine their reach, advocacy groups say. Maryland’s program is no exception.

“The rollout was late, some of the deadlines changed midstream, people had trouble uploading materials and getting timely answers to their questions,” said DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, one of Maryland’s largest community colleges. “The first year of any program is always challenging. There are some powerful learning opportunities coming from this process.”

The Maryland Higher Education Commission, which administers the scholarship, said it could not begin the application process until April, after the state finished updating its financial-aid database. That set a short timeline for a process with many moving pieces.

Even some of the terms of the program were in flux because the Maryland General Assembly made revisions and expanded eligibility to apprenticeships, with those scholarships possibly beginning as early as this month. Those changes passed in April and didn’t become law until May 25, after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) allowed the bill to take effect without his signature.

Some high school guidance counselors and college advisers said they weren’t fully aware of all the revisions. They said the state could have done a better job of connecting with families to help them understand the complexities of the scholarship program.

There was no application form for students to fill out. Instead, the higher education commission used families’ reported income from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, or Maryland’s version of the financial aid form to identify students who could qualify. The 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.

If eligible students were interested, they had until June to submit a transcript showing they earned a gradepoint average of at least 2.3 the first semester of their senior year in high school and completed high school or earned a GED within the last two years. The higher education commission said some families were confused as to why they were being asked to submit the same information they had already provided the community college.

Award recipients were notified just weeks before the start of classes. State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who championed an early version of the scholarship bill, said the late notice is disruptive for students who need to know whether they will have the money to attend school. He said the higher education commission told lawmakers recipients would be informed by July 30, but moved the timeline later.

The higher education commission said the application process for the 2020-2021 academic year will launch in November, with awards announced earlier next year.

“I’m furious,” Pinsky said. “This [law] has been on the books, and it’s taking way too long. I don’t know if [the Maryland Higher Education Commission is] understaffed or it’s a competency question. They’re only using 25 percent of the money we allotted. There are a lot more students that could have taken advantage of this if they could have been more timely.”

Pinsky has been critical of the Hogan administration for mismanaging the scholarship program. Hogan’s office has dismissed the state senator’s criticisms as politics.

“This is a great program that helps make college more affordable, and the commission has worked flat-out to address the legislature’s last-minute changes,” said Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan. “When our administration reached out to Senator Pinsky to discuss this in early August, he responded by sending an angry text message.”

He added: “If the Senator truly cared about the Promise program, he would have worked with us on our legislation to expand the initiative to more students. Instead, he politicizes and picks fights over things we agree on.”

In some ways, the requirements of the Maryland College Promise scholarship — meant to encourage students to graduate faster — effectively limit the pool of applicants. By focusing on recent high school graduates, the program shuts out adult learners in a state where the average community college student is 25 years old. Part-time students, who constitute more than two-thirds of the state’s community college population, are also ineligible, because students must attend full time to qualify.

“The actual criteria for the Promise program is going to belie some of the intent,” Pollard, the Montgomery College president, said. “We know the data tells us that students are more successful if they attend full time, but that’s not the lived experience of many of our students.”

Other scholarship requirements may have discouraged students who would otherwise be eligible. If recipients fail to live in the state for as many years as they received tuition assistance, Maryland will turn their scholarships into loans that must be repaid. Students can defer this obligation under a number of circumstances, including if they transfer to a four-year college, but the condition has made student advocates uneasy.

“We were reluctant to promote this [scholarship] because we didn’t want to create a situation where our students could end up with as much as $10,000 worth of student loan debt,” said Nancy Leopold, executive director of College Tracks, a nonprofit group that advises low-income and first-generation students in Maryland.

The scholarship-to-loan provision is unclear and could penalize students for things that are beyond their control, Leopold said. It doesn’t help that the Maryland Higher Education Commission provides conflicting information about the loan conversion on its website.

On the Frequently Asked Questions page for the scholarship, students were told their awards would turn into loans if they transfer before completing their certificate or associate degree. But another section of the website says transferring is allowed as long as the student has earned 48 credits at the community college — a revision made in the last legislative session.

Lawmakers also got rid of a previous requirement that participants work in the state to avoid having their scholarships converted into loans, recognizing that some Maryland residents are employed in neighboring counties in the District, Virginia and Pennsylvania. But the commission’s website still featured the old terms of the scholarship.

“It’s embarrassing that [the higher education commission] couldn’t clean that up on their website,” Pinsky said.

After The Washington Post pointed out the misleading information, the commission updated its website to reflect the legislative changes.

Charlene M. Dukes, president of Prince George’s Community College, said improving communication about the scholarship program will take a collaborative effort among the commission, the colleges and their local association.

“There are things we will be able to do to make it clearer, more transparent, more coherent for the families we’re hoping to serve,” she said.

Despite the small number of scholarship recipients, Dukes believes the existence of the program helped raise the profile of Maryland’s community colleges. Fall semester enrollment at Prince George’s and Montgomery colleges grew by more than 5 percent year-over-year, according to the schools.

The community college association’s Sadusky said the low uptake of the scholarship program does not diminish its importance or potential. He is concerned, however, that it may be difficult to persuade the legislature to maintain the $15 million allocation for the program when not even $5 million of that money has been spent.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the economics of education, writing about the financial lives of students, from when they take out student debt through their experiences in the job market. Before that, she wrote about the banking industry.