College students in the U.S. share a common worry that often follows them through their years of post-secondary education: How am I going to pay for this? With the price tag of a degree continuing to grow, creative ways to fund college educations are needed now more than ever. Many students turn to their local community colleges to save on tuition for their first two years of college.
The issue has become politically salient as candidates for governor and other offices debate how best to make higher education accessible and affordable. One Democratic candidate for governor, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, has proposed making public colleges and universities tuition-free. The price tag is likely to be very costly.
Garrett County, in the far reaches of Western Maryland, has created a mechanism to provide its students with a free, two-year community college education. It was the first county in the state to institute a promise program for the graduates of its two high schools who enroll at Garrett College in McHenry, just minutes from Deep Creek Lake.
In 2006, the Garrett County commissioners allocated around $200,000 to start the Garrett County Scholarship Program that would provide free tuition to local graduates. A decade later, the program has grown to $550,000, funding two years of college for almost 500 students, said Richard Midcap, president of Garrett College.
In 2010, the program was expanded to provide scholarships toward workforce training and occupational courses, including trades such as welding, truck-driving and certified nursing assistance, Midcap said. For the 2016-17 school year, 30 students enrolled in the occupational training program.
Any student who has been a Garrett County resident for two years prior to applying and who graduated from a county high school is eligible for the program. Additionally, the program now provides scholarships for students enrolled at Garrett College while still attending either Northern High School in Accident or Southern High School in Oakland.
Midcap said the program has been extremely successful, considering scholarship recipients have both a higher grade point average and retention rate than the average GCC student. For the fall 2016 semester, the scholarship program average GPA was an overall 3.08 – significantly higher than the school’s overall GPA of 2.57. Those enrolled in the scholarship program have a higher tendency to finish their two-year degree, with a retention rate from fall 2015 to fall 2016 of 87 percent, a staggering difference compared to the 50 percent retention rate for the average student, Midcap said.
Garrett County Commissioner Paul Edwards (R), a former teacher, said the program was formulated not only to put more students through school, but to set apart Garrett County from competitors when attracting business to the community.
“We are one of the only counties [in Maryland] losing population,” Edwards said. “Not only is this an economic development tool, but a tool to attract millennials and young families. This program might give us an edge in attracting full-time residents.”
Garrett County Administrator Kevin Null agrees the program is designed to benefit the county in a more complex way than simply sending more students to college. He said the scholarship program is a “long-term commitment to helping the citizens.” He called the scholarship program an investment in the future of the county, designed to reap benefits in the long term.
“You are not going to get a return on your investment immediately,” Null said. “Our long-term goal is that they are going to come back to [Garrett County], buy a house, get a job and live in the community.”
Null said that although the investment takes time to yield returns, the college’s occupational program has produced immediate results for students. He said some students get job offers before they even graduate.
Even though publicly funded education is a hot topic among today’s politicians, especially Democrats, Garrett County is one of the most conservative counties in Maryland. In the 2016 presidential election, 78 percent of Garrett countians voted for Donald Trump. However, Edwards said the scholarship program has almost “universal support” across the county.
He chalks up the support for the program to the obvious community benefits and the actual cost of the program. Students enrolled in the program have to exhaust all other options of financial aid, such as Pell Grants and other scholarships, before receiving money from Garrett County. Edwards said some students enrolled in the scholarship program are only receiving $100 from the county.
“It’s not as expensive as it may seem to an outsider looking in,” Edwards said. “And this could absolutely work for other counties.”
Four other community colleges in the state — Allegany College of Maryland, Hagerstown Community College, Prince George’s Community College and Wor-Wic Community College — have started a promise program. Baltimore city also intends to create a program.
Monica Rinker, president of the Garrett County Board of Education, uses both of her daughters as examples for the success of the scholarship program.
“I’m proud to say, one [daughter] is currently an elementary school teacher in Garrett County after graduating from Frostburg [State] University,” she said. “My other daughter completed two years at Garrett College and is currently enrolled at West Virginia University in the nursing program.”
Garrett County was recognized nationally this year for the scholarship program when it was awarded the Robert J. Woods Foundation Culture of Health Award. The award chooses eight recipients from more than 100 applicants based on which communities are providing the most services for their residents to live the “healthiest life possible,” according to the foundation’s website. The scholarship program was cited directly by the foundation as a reason for choosing Garrett County for the award.
This story was updated Nov. 6 to correct the number of community colleges in Maryland that have promise programs.