More than 1,200 community college students will receive Promise Scholarships this year that could eliminate their tuition costs, but a state senator is alarmed that a rocky rollout for the program could have jeopardized the attendance of students most in need.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) said the inaugural process to award the much acclaimed “tuition-free” community college program has been bungled – with students receiving notices that they’d qualified – or worse, didn’t – just days before the start of the fall semester.
“For some young people this is the difference between enrolling and not enrolling. And if they don’t know but days before school starts,” they might not have time to get things in order to attend, Pinsky said. “…I’m very frustrated.”
Starting Aug. 12, 1,278 students at Maryland’s 16 two-year schools began receiving word that they would get a Promise Scholarship this year.
The earliest start date at Maryland’s community colleges is Aug. 19; a majority of campuses return for the fall semester next week.
Bernard J. Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said colleges were informed that another 1,665 students may be qualified for a promise scholarship, but either the college or the student needed to submit additional information or show continued financial need to the Maryland Higher Education Commission to finish the process. The deadline for the additional documents was Monday.
Sadusky said there was some concern among community college administrators that the late notice for those who received awards could discourage fall enrollment but asserted the campus administrators worked to get as many students qualified and registered as possible before the fall semester.
Representatives from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which make the awards, said the Promise Scholarship program as passed by the General Assembly in 2018 set up a tight timeline for the annual awards process. The bill required graduating Maryland high school students to provide transcripts showing a grade point average of 2.3 or higher and proof that they were registered in a community college, as well as documentation of financial need. Because the Promise Scholarships are a last-dollar program, all other financial aid options must be applied first.
The program includes a service obligation requirement under which students agree to live in the state and work full-time for at least one year for each year the scholarship was awarded. Awardees are required to fulfill this obligation within one year of receiving their degrees or certificates or completing their apprenticeships, but can defer their service requirement if they transfer to a four-year institution; are temporarily disabled; are unable to work due because they must care for a disabled spouse or child; or are assigned military duty outside of the state, according to the MHEC website.
In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to determine Promise Scholarship eligibility after a high school senior’s first semester, among other changes. Though the bill was filed as an emergency measure, it wasn’t passed by lawmakers until April 4 and became law May 25 after Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) allowed the bill to take effect without his signature.
“Despite MHEC having to make last minute changes to the program, The Governor’s Office was kept informed to ensure these amendments were implemented on time and offered to Maryland students in time for the 2019-20 academic year,” Rhonda Wardlaw, director of communications for the commission, said in an email.
She said the bill passed this year will allow future Promise Scholarship deadlines to “fall comfortably into the framework” for the more than two dozen other scholarship programs awarded by MHEC.
If no additional awards are granted, the Maryland Higher Education Commission will have awarded $4,332,496 in scholarships from a $15 million budget for the program.
“We do not think that we’ve maximized the potential of this program,” Sadusky said. “We are going to make corrections going forward to make sure that eligible students are taking advantage of the program.”
However, he also said bumps in rolling out the new program weren’t entirely unexpected, particularly after the timeline problems were identified.
“With any new programs you’re going to have some glitches. I think this program had a glitch,” Sadusky said. “…I do think next year at this time will be a better measure for how effective the program is.”
The Maryland Association of Community Colleges will undertake more outreach efforts later this year to promote the scholarships.
There are other limitations to the program, experts said.
While the scholarships are a “phenomenal opportunity” for some students, it is misleading to call the program “free community college” because of its limited scope, Maureen Murphy, president of the College of Southern Maryland, said in an email to Maryland Matters.
“The Promise is open to students who are recent high schools graduates whose family incomes fall below certain thresholds,” Murphy wrote. “Further, the students must attend college full-time and apply all other grants and scholarships before receiving any Promise funds.”
The majority of students at the College of Southern Maryland are not eligible for the program because they are part-time students or have been out of high school for more than two years, she said. Yet most students at the community college, which serves Charles, St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, must work, and half of the student population reports having significant family obligations.
She estimated that 175 of the college’s 7,200 students will receive the Promise scholarships this year.
“For those 175 students, the opportunity to focus on college with less financial anxiety is a great gift,” Murphy wrote.
Questioning the administration’s commitment to education
Meanwhile, Pinsky is also upset that a scholarship program to drive high-achieving high school students into teaching careers has not yet taken off.
The Maryland Teaching Fellows Program has been approved for several years, but first received funding in the 2019 fiscal year, as the Kirwan Commission, which is advancing education reform proposals, sharpened focus on training teachers in the state. The $2 million restricted for that program in 2019 was not spent. MHEC plans on opening the application process Sept. 1 for awards from a $2 million pot in the 2020 budget.
Wardlaw said the restricted funding for the 2018-2019 academic year was made available with only four months remaining in the fiscal year. Despite the Sept. 1 application opening, students will be eligible for full-year awards.
Pinsky said the late timeline for the program will likely benefit students already in teaching programs, while the goal was to attract students to teaching professions who might not have considered a teaching career otherwise.
“The idea was to use the money to attract high school kids to go into teaching, not to pay kids who are already in teaching,” Pinsky said. “…It shouldn’t take a year and a half to do this. This was one of the proposals from Kirwan. We want to get our best and brightest and show them they don’t necessarily have to go become attorneys or doctors or CEOs, we want to get our best and brightest” into teaching.
Pinsky, in interviews and in an op-ed published in The Baltimore Sun, faulted Hogan for not exercising enough leadership to get the programs going.
“I don’t think education has been a high priority of the administration, to be frank,” Pinsky said. “It’s got to be a higher priority. …He’s got to put either more people or better people [at MHEC]. He’s got to understand accountability and timelines. If you take on the responsibility of running an operation, you’ve got to run it right.”
Wardlaw, in emailed responses to questions, said the commission has the resources it needs “and that was evident in its ability to fulfill its obligation of awarding 1,278 scholarships during the inaugural award process.”
Hogan’s office had not responded to questions about Pinsky’s comments as of late Wednesday.
Lisa Nevans Locke contributed to this report.