Using Promise to Rebuild

Baltimore’s struggling two-year college considers a tuition-free program while undergoing a state-mandated reorganization. But some experts question what level of quality they’re offering students for free.

September 28, 2017
 
Baltimore City Community College

After years of struggling to enroll and graduate students, officials at Baltimore City Community College hope a state-mandated reorganization and a tuition-free proposal from the mayor’s office will spark a turnaround at the institution.

Earlier this year, Maryland’s General Assembly passed legislation directing the community college to improve graduation rates and build better partnerships with the business community, while also replacing its Board of Trustees.

“The college in the view of the state Legislature has not always performed as they would like it to, given the mission of the college and who we are serving,” said Bryan Perry, general counsel and chief of staff to the college’s president, Gordon May.

Perry said the state government’s decision to realign the college and its priorities reflects a larger national trend of encouraging colleges to put more of an emphasis on getting students into jobs.

“In 2015 we had a national uprising, and many of the people involved were between 16 and 24, who didn’t have a job or were underemployed or lacking an educational credential,” said Perry, in reference to protests that took place following the arrest and death in police custody of Freddie Gray. “The Legislature felt the college needed to do a better job serving the citizens of Baltimore.”

Meanwhile, the city’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, has proposed a tuition-free plan for the community college. Free college programs have become more popular in recent years. However, some advocates for tuition-free college said they were concerned about whether Baltimore’s plan, which has yet to be finalized, will provide adequate academic and other supports to help a potential influx of students reach graduation.

Among Maryland’s two-year colleges, Baltimore City has the lowest graduation rate -- 3.3 percent for students who first enrolled in 2011 -- and the lowest transfer rate (11.5 percent for the same group), according to data from the state and college.

Enrollment at the college also has decreased significantly. In 2007, Baltimore City had more than 22,000 students. A decade later, roughly 16,000 students attend it.

“Many of our city students turned to educational opportunities elsewhere, and some are forgoing education altogether and getting a job,” Perry said.

The college has until February to submit plans for improvement to the state, with a final report due in December 2018.

Perry said Baltimore City has trimmed its budget to reflect enrollment projections and officials have started to look at the college’s real estate holdings to examine what can be leased or used in the future.

“We don’t feel like our services have suffered,” Perry said. “Students will be getting a great education. We have the state’s only two-year robotics degree. We do well in nursing, health science and tech areas. Students will be getting a great two-year education at no cost.”

Promise With Student Success

The mayor’s tuition-free proposal is one way the college hopes to work with the city to better help students. It is expected to cost the city about $1.7 million during the first year, which would begin with the 2018 high school graduating class. The mayor’s office didn’t respond to interview requests.

Baltimore wouldn’t be the first troubled college to entertain the idea of going tuition-free. City College of San Francisco, which only recently emerged from a years-long series of battles with its accreditor over quality and which has lingering financial challenges, also is developing a tuition-free proposal from the city.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, said she doesn’t see a problem with colleges -- even those that have had operational problems -- offering tuition-free programs.

“I think these represent a great opportunity to rebuild struggling colleges,” she said via email. “That is definitely what is happening at CCSF.”

But increasing enrollment at a college that is having challenges may not be the best way to support students and get them to graduation, said Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher education policy, practice and research at the Education Trust.

“Enrollment without a degree serves no purpose,” he said. “Is there capacity to do mentorship, additional advising and a capacity to provide students with the additional supports to help them get to graduation?”

Del Pilar points to the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs model, which provides students with transportation cards and counseling in addition to free tuition.

The CUNY model was recently tested in the Detroit Promise program and is showing early signs of full-time enrollment and retention growth, said Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, of which Baltimore City is a member institution.

“You could make a case that it’s the perfect time to marry a new Promise program with a brand-new student success program,” Stout said. “The city needs that type of bold approach. The city is suffering from tremendous educational gaps, so access to the community college is really important and the new Promise program could provide that new access for many of the Baltimore city students going to neighboring county colleges and paying double the tuition.”

Other states that have considered adopting tuition-free programs have included requirements to determine which community colleges would receive it. For example, legislation in California that is awaiting the governor’s signature would require two-year colleges to reduce remedial course offerings and improve student outcomes in order to be eligible for state funding for one year of free tuition, said Morley Winograd, president and chief executive officer for the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

“CFCT has always said a promise is about more than money,” he said via email, adding that the group recommends tying requirements for institutional improvement to tuition-free initiatives.

Baltimore City this year began other attempts to be more affordable for its many low-income students. Earlier this year, the college began using open educational resources -- better known as free textbooks and classroom resources -- in about 80 classes, Perry said.

“Free tuition is something the state and counties have looked at, and it’s something the college wanted to consider,” he said. “Working with the mayor, we think it’ll help enrollment, but the students will still benefit from the college being even better.”

Ultimately it’s up to students to make the decision about whether or not one college or another offers them a chance for economic stability and mobility, said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

“We need to think about institutions and make sure they are serving students appropriately and are equipped to provide students with the education they need,” she said, “so they are not enrolling just because it’s tuition-free but enrolling into real pathways to credentials.”

The Maryland General Assembly’s bill reorganizing the college also replaced its governing board with a new group to oversee the changes and outlined what the expectations would be for finding a new college president.

The president of the University of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, was tapped to help lead the reorganization. Schmoke declined to be interviewed for this story and referred questions to Perry. Earlier this month, Baltimore City’s president, Gordon May, announced plans to retire next year after four years as the institution’s top leader.

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