Maryland proposal for free community college is part of national trend. But does it work?

“Free tuition” programs like the one Maryland lawmakers approved in the final hours of the General Assembly are gaining national momentum, but experts say such statewide initiatives are still too new to determine their long-term benefit.

The idea is becoming more popular as American families struggle with rising tuition and student debt.

“Going into an election year, everyone wants to do it,” said Joni E. Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

“The middle class is very worried about paying for college for their kids,” she said. “Policymakers are paying attention, from both parties.”

State lawmakers on Monday approved a bill that could make thousands of Marylanders eligible for free tuition at community colleges. Gov. Larry Hogan has not yet said whether he will sign it into law.

In Baltimore, the new Mayor’s Scholars Program launched by Mayor Catherine Pugh offers all city high school graduate tuition-free community, beginning this year. Last month, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz proposed the College Promise program, which would cover community college tuition for students who meet certain income and academic requirements. It has not yet been approved by the County Council.

In recent years, states including New York, Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota have enacted statewide programs to cover tuition at public institutions.

“These programs are pretty new, so we don’t have years and years of data,” Finney said.

In a report published last year by the Institute for Research on Higher Education, Finney found that enrollment across Tennesee’s public institutions increased by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Tennessee Promise program.

Announced in 2014, the program aims to make enrollment free at community at community and technical schools. It’s part of a broader array of policies in Tennessee designed to improve educational attainment. The policies have received bipartisan support and been championed by the sate’s business community, Finney said.

While many places experience an enrollment bump when launching a free-tuition program, it is unclear how many of the students stay on to graduate, said Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

“A lot of these programs are still too new to assess,” Cochrane said.

Cochrane said making college more affordable and accessible are “incredibly important goals, but it’s also important that we make sure program design allows for those goals to be achieved.”

Students can still face financial barriers because many of the expenses associated with college — such as books, transportation and living costs — aren’t covered by these programs, she said.

Eligibility requirements vary across the country. Many of those conditions are aimed at keeping costs down, Cochrane said.

In the Maryland program, students would need to have a high school grade point average of 2.3. They would have to enroll within two years of finishing high school or of obtaining a GED, and would need to take 12 credit hours of courses.

Maryland’s program would be a “last dollar” scholarship — meaning the state would award the funds after all other financial aid options are pursued. The program is expected to cost $15 million a year, and would give community college scholarships of up to $5,000 to students who meet income and other eligibility requirements. Another $2 million over five years would provide grants to current students finish their degrees at community and four-year institutions.

The plan would more than double state scholarship money available to low-income community college students, according to the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.

While statewide programs are still new, some jurisdictions around the country have free-tuition initiatives that have been in place for years.

The first large-scale program started in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Mich., where the Kalamazoo Promise offers students who attend the city’s public schools free tuition to state colleges and universities, as well as more than a dozen private liberal-arts colleges. Funded by anonymous donors, the program is open to students of all income levels.

In a 2015 paper, researchers with the W.E. Upjohn Center for Employment Research in Kalamazoo estimated that the Promise program had increased students’ chance of enrolling in a four-year college by 34 percent. For low-income students, the effect was even higher, increasing attendance by more than 50 percent.

Timothy Ready, director of the Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations at Western Michigan University, says free-tuition programs are a positive step but not enough to reduce inequality.

Ready said out-of-school factors related to a student’s socioeconomic circumstances have been shown to play a dominant role in achievement.

Ready said programs like the Kalamazoo Promise are “necessary, but not sufficient, to boost higher education outcomes for students who’ve been disadvantaged.”

Particularly for poor and non-traditional students, obstacles to finishing college are often due to “how life gets in the way,” he said. A car breaking down can turn into a crisis for someone who lacks resources.

The Kalamazoo Promise did immediately reverse a decline in the city’s public schools and has since boosted enrollment by 25 percent, he said.

Many hoped that the program also would help increase real estate values, but “that’s generally been disappointing,” he said.

Making community college free “is one way of lessening income inequality and the inequality of access to opportunity in our society,” Ready said.

“I think that anything that does that is good,” Ready said. “It’s just that the inequalities are so pervasive that any one initiative by itself is going to be of … somewhat limited effectiveness if you don’t take into account these other things.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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