The rapid expansion of statewide free community college programs has continued during this spring’s legislative sessions, with two states enacting programs and two more states in the midst of budgetary negotiations. This swift legislative movement means more needed resources are being invested in financial aid for community college students after years of state disinvestment in higher education. But the quick pace of program pickup has also resulted in states mirroring untested, and at times likely counterproductive, eligibility restrictions from other states. Maryland’s new program reflects that trend.
Maryland Passes a Promise?
This week, Maryland became the seventeenth state with a free community college program when the legislature appropriated and the governor approved $15 million for a “last dollar” program covering tuition and fees for students from families earning $100,000 (single-parent household) or $150,000 (two-parent household). The program provides an exciting, significant new investment: it will more than double the amount of state financial aid going to community college students, from $14 million to $29 million, and will grow the state’s financial aid program by almost 15 percent.
But is it truly a “Promise” of free college? Maybe.
- The program covers last-dollar tuition or up to $5,000, whichever is less. Maryland’s average community college tuition and fees stand at $4,500, and the legislation also incorporates some limits on tuition growth over the next few years. But with tuition inflation, tuition and fees may not stay free.
- The legislation instructs the state’s higher education commission to prioritize need in distributing the $15 million allocated—a good way to prioritize if they cannot meet demand. But while it’s true that some programs include language such as this in the event that legislators project wrong and appropriate too few dollars to meet demand, in this case, it is unclear whether this amount is actually intended as a “Promise” to cover all students who meet the qualifications—or just a program that covers an unknown percentage until the state runs out of money.
In other words, the Maryland program’s limitations raise an important question: how will any funding shortfalls obstruct one of the most compelling aspects of a Promise design—a clear, easy-to-understand message about college affordability that families can rely on?
Despite the overall positive investment, there is additional work to be done to improve the program going forward. The “last dollar” feature means fewer dollars will go to the lowest-income students, who have other aid like Pell to help cover tuition but still struggle with living costs. And it disqualifies at least 73 percent of the state’s 124,000 community college students by limiting eligibility to recent high school graduates who enroll full-time with a 2.3 GPA, cutting off many low-income students who are older, who cannot quit working and only focus on school, or who fall short of the merit requirement. Finally, Maryland joins New York and Arkansas in creating a grant-to-loan program, requiring recipients to work full-time in-state for the equivalent number of years that they receive the scholarship or have the grant turn into a loan. These mazy requirements are counterproductive to creating a simple message—and simply unnecessary, given the state’s net gains in college grads coming to the state.
The program is a step forward, but Maryland gubernatorial candidates looking to take the helm in eight months should make clear how they plan to build on this program and expand aid for students who need it.
Ongoing Budget Debates in New Jersey and California
The free college debate continues further up the northeast corridor, where New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has proposed free community college with a well-targeted program that would cover tuition for anyone earning under $45,000. The initial proposal avoids some of the eligibility limitations found in other states, with no requirements pertaining to merit, age, or enrollment intensity requirements. It would send resources to some of the neediest students in the state—perhaps more so than almost any other last-dollar free college plan. But some Democratic legislators have suggested adding merit requirements—which can have inequitable impacts and are unfortunately common elsewhere—to the simple program design. With a little over a month left in the state’s budget process, it’s too early to tell whether the final version will retain its positive design features.
Meanwhile, the budget process continues in California, where Governor Jerry Brown proposed funding the one-year free community college program that he signed into law, but didn’t yet fund, last year. Other states are wrapping up their own legislation: Indiana expanded its new free program for adult students enrolled in certain certificate programs to include full-time dependent students. In Connecticut, legislators narrowed the initial income-capped proposal to just include community college—but even with the revisions, the bill still failed in the state’s appropriations committee. Bills in Mississippi and West Virginia also died when legislators refused to find the dollars. West Virginia’s proposal had gained national attention with onerous, counterproductive student drug testing requirements—one eligibility requirement that, thankfully, hasn’t gained interest from other states.