Yes, “free tuition” is an attention-getting headline. But it is more than a gimmick: It’s a strategy in place in cities such as Chicago and in the entire Tennessee state community college system, part of a coordinated public-policy effort to increase college attendance and completion rates. Why not here?
If we are serious about Baltimore’s current and future health, we have to do more to broaden access to higher education for low- and middle-income students. Community colleges have historically played a critical role in providing that access. BCCC serves as a cost-effective bridge to four-year degree programs in addition to granting associate’s degrees and offering continuing education programs, workforce training, and lifelong learning opportunities.
But declining public support and rising college costs across the higher-education spectrum have resulted in tuition rates that are out of reach for many in our city, even given the relatively affordable tuition at institutions such as BCCC. Because we know that the gulf in our society between the haves and the have-nots is increasingly related to disparities in levels of educational attainment, something must be done to break the cycle. Business as usual isn’t the answer; free community college tuition could be. Last year, the University of Baltimore took a step in this direction when it introduced Finish4Free, offering a tuition-free final semester to students who graduate in four years.
Of course, the first objection to abolishing BCCC’s tuition will be financial: Where will the money come from? That’s a fair and understandable question, especially given the current economic forecast. But tough times often give rise to the most creative ideas. Slate magazine recently posted a piece on how we could make all of our public colleges and universities tuition-free at no additional cost (spoiler alert: There would be no more federal aid available to private institutions). Or, consider this: If Maryland had kept prison spending at its 1990 level, we would have, on average, an additional $525 million per year for other priorities (source: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; figures cited in 2013 dollars). As the saying goes, budgets reflect values.
In Chicago, it’s the Star Scholarship. In Tennessee, it’s the Tennessee Promise. How about Benefit Baltimore?
Kurt Schmoke is President of the University of Baltimore and was the first African-American elected Mayor in Baltimore, serving from 1987 to 1999.