Maryland Association of Community Colleges
More than 200 community college students and alumni from across Maryland descended on the State House in Annapolis Tuesday to take part in an annual Student Advocacy Day event and promote state support for their colleges. There was a newfound sense of urgency among participants this year because of looming state budget cuts that could slash funding for the colleges by $22 million.
The proposed cut, outlined in the state budget proposal presented to lawmakers by the governor in mid-January, caught many community college administrators and higher ed advocates by surprise, because the institutions have historically received relatively strong state support.
Governor Wes Moore, a community college graduate himself, says the budget cut is a necessary response to declining enrollment at the state’s 16 community colleges and dwindling federal pandemic relief funds. But state higher education officials point out that state funding levels were already insufficient without the additional federal assistance. Students, faculty and administrators now fear a cut in state funding will force the colleges to raise tuition, terminate major scholarships and freeze hiring.
Sandra L. Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), said news of the proposed cut felt like “a sucker punch.” It would mean a nearly $4.5 million decline in funding for the college and likely force her to make major cuts to a tuition-free scholarship program.
She believes the governor’s budget decision reflects a lack of appreciation for the important role community colleges play in educating state residents and supporting workforce development.
“If we could be so easily singled out to absorb a significant cut … It has something to do, I think, with the way we are perceived on an academic level,” she said.
Reining in Funding Increases
The reductions were made through amendments to the state’s funding model, known as the Cade formula, which links the funding of community colleges and four-year institutions and appropriates 29 cents to the two-year colleges for every $1 allocated to state universities. Under the model, funding increases for state universities would ostensibly mean proportional increases for community colleges, but this has not always been the case.
A 2012 law reduced the amount community colleges received to 19 cents per dollar the four-year colleges receive. The amount grew incrementally over the years and reached 29 cents again just last year.
Now, under Moore’s budget proposal, funding for four-year institutions will decline slightly, and the proportion designated for community colleges will be reduced to 26.5 cents.
Daria J. Willis, president of Howard Community College, said she understands the governor is “stuck between a rock and a hard place” after a tough financial year, but she still finds a budget cut “a little disheartening.”
“It took us a gazillion years to get there, and now we’re being reduced again,” she said of the current amount allotted to community colleges under the Cade formula. “We just can’t keep sustaining these kinds of reductions.”
Moore’s office said in an emailed statement that his budget goal is to “rein in the level of funding increases” community colleges received during the pandemic despite consistently declining enrollment. The statement noted that the governor “worked with discipline to craft a budget that will not only help close structural gaps, but will drive economic growth and create long-term fiscal sustainability for Maryland.”
Further, it said the Moore administration “engaged in months-long conversations with state and local leaders about the difficult choices ahead—including concerns about education, public safety, affordability, and building a more competitive, more sustainable economy.”
The statement also said funding for community colleges rose 57 percent, from $250 million in fiscal year 2020, to $393 million in 2024, while enrollment dropped by 20 percent.
Community college advocates note, however, that enrollment and degree-attainment rates are starting to rise. Enrollment grew by 8.3 percent in fall 2023 compared to the prior spring semester, and degree completion has risen by 25 percent since 2012.
“Basing this recommended reduction on enrollment from the middle of a pandemic is not aligned with where we currently are,” said Brad Phillips, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, which runs the annual Student Advocacy Day event. “If the governor’s proposal were indeed to go forward, then some community colleges would have some real struggles trying to figure out how to balance their budget.”
A Threat to Affordability
For the Community College of Baltimore County, the funding reductions could mean dramatic cuts to the scholarships that make college affordable for the bulk of the institution’s 48,500 students.
About 85 percent of students attend CCBC without paying a dime of tuition under a program that guarantees free tuition to Maryland students from families that earn less than $150,000 a year. But CCBC president Kurtinitis said she’ll almost certainly have to make major cuts to the program if the budget passes as proposed.
She estimates that approximately 20,000, or 41 percent of CCBC’s students, would lose some institutional aid as a result. Tuition, which has remained at $125 per credit hour since 2018, would also have to go up by about $5 to $10 per credit, she said.
“That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a lot for our students,” Kurtinitis said, adding that many are from low-income families.
Gabriel Tanenbaum-Volger, a third-year student majoring in environmental science at CCBC, is scheduled to graduate in May.
He said he originally planned to work for a few years after high school and save money for college, but CCBC’s free tuition program allowed him to go straight to college. He worries that his younger sister won’t be able to do the same if the program is halted as a consequence of the proposed budget cuts. “I’m talking to my [state] delegates to help them know just how important it is that tuition stay affordable to all community college students,” he said.
Dumont Henriette, an immigrant from Cameroon who is also scheduled to graduate from CCBC in May, said she wouldn’t have been able to attend the college without the free tuition program.
If state lawmakers adopt the governor’s proposed budget, “it’s going to close the door for a wide range of people that otherwise don’t have financial means to try to elevate themselves from the economic class they’re in,” she said.
Fighting for Second Chances
Deborah Casey, president of Wor-Wic Community College on the Delmarva Peninsula, fears the $1.5 million cut at her institution will diminish the quality of student services that are critical to workforce development in her rural southeastern county.
Approximately 40 percent of the population in Worcester and Wicomico Counties, which border the college, lives in poverty, Casey said, and students need a range of support services on and off campus to help them have successful academic and employment outcomes.
“This cut really impacts our ability to fully offer the programs and services that we need to make sure people can be skilled up,” she said.
Casey also noted that the cuts could force her to consider freezing hiring and salaries.
“We won’t have the financial resources to help bring talent in the classroom to our campus,” she said. “So for us that cut significantly impacts what we’re going to be able to do to serve this local community.”
State Senator Johnny Mautz, a Republican who represents part of Wicomico County, said community colleges, which have been “a lifeline for many in the private sector that are dealing with workforce shortages,” would be hard hit by the funding cuts.
Mautz and seven other lawmakers, representing both political parties and both chambers of the state Legislature, sent a letter to the governor’s office asking that funding for the community colleges be restored.
“I just know from past practices, opening up and changing the budget is not as easy as just moving a couple of numbers around,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a realist. However, the chance that the blow is lightened a little bit with some adjustments, that’s a very real option.”
Gavin Stephens, a Wor-Wic Community College alum, views community college as a place of second chances.
Wor-Wic Community College
But Gavin Stephens, a Wor-Wic alum who spent time in prison before turning his life around, isn’t giving up hope. He attended the advocacy day event because he views lobbying for the college as advocating for “second chances.”
“Wor-Wic said, ‘Come home, do the right thing, make the right choices and as long as you do that, you’re a valued person here,’” he said.
Stephens graduated with an associate degree in business in 2020 and went on to earn a bachelor’s in 2022 before becoming a salesman. He believes investing in community colleges is vital, because they’ve provided opportunity not only for him, but for single parents, veterans and immigrants.
“We’re all just this diverse community trying to figure out life together and better ourselves,” he said. “With traditional budgets, community colleges are helping these people succeed. But with a budget cut, you would stop seeing that, and you would start to see disenfranchised students.”