Maryland's public colleges are six months into complying with one of the nation’s most ambitious college completion bills. The state-mandated push puts Maryland in a class with Tennessee, Indiana and Georgia.
"It represents a defining moment for public higher education in the state of Maryland," said Charlene M. Dukes, president of Prince George's Community College. "It sets a whole new tone."
A few educators said they were uneasy about the state’s Legislature getting so deep in the weeds with legislation that touches  on everything from dual enrollment to remediation and completion plans for each student. (See below for more details about the measure.)
Making the many required changes has been a heavy lift at times. But several college leaders said the comprehensive nature of the legislation was a virtue.
That's because Maryland's completion law, which was enacted in July, deals simultaneously with K-12, community colleges and four-year institutions. Experts say attempted completion fixes, such as improving remedial course success rates, can benefit from reaching across the various stages of public education.
"If we really want to deal with developmental education," said Bernie Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, "we have to go to the source of the problem. That is K-12."
The measure requires high schools to test students on their college readiness -- in both math and English -- before they finish their junior years. By 2015 high schools will need to create "transition" courses for students that are deemed unprepared for college-level courses in those subjects.
On the higher education side, public institutions in the state must require students to complete at least one credit-bearing, non-remedial math and English course as part of the first 24 credits they earn.
That approach manages to not be punitive, said John Grabowski, dean of enrollment services at Anne Arundel Community College. It is also less aggressive than legislative attempts to reform remediation in other states, such as Florida  and Connecticut .
That’s not too surprising, as lawmakers in Annapolis are generally friendly to public higher education. State support for public colleges there has long been better than in most other states.
Several community college leaders said genial relations with the State House helped during negotiations over the completion legislation. They said the Legislature’s approach was pragmatic.
"They were willing to compromise," said Bradley Gottfried, president of the College of Southern Maryland.
For example, the legislation’s sponsors eased off on a few initially aggressive timelines for colleges.
Almost all of the community college sector’s suggested amendments were adopted in the final version.
While there are many pieces to the legislation, Grabowski said colleges either have been working on them already, or should have been.
Whether the measure will help improve student retention and completion, rather than just creating an unfunded bureaucracy, is an open question. But community college leaders said they are optimistic about seeing solid results in a few years.
Officials with the University System of Maryland agreed. They said much of what the legislation seeks to accomplish is already in the works.
"It’s doable," said P.J. Hogan, the system’s vice chancellor for government relations. He called the legislation "realistically ambitious."
'A Package Suite'
Maryland’s completion law doesn’t set target numbers for colleges' graduation or retention rates. But it does seek for at least 55 percent of the state's residents between the ages of 25 and 64 to hold at least an associate degree by 2025. That would be a more than 10 percentage point increase from the 44.4 percent rate in 2009.
To get there the measure requires a host of tangible changes. Some are designed to encourage completion among the 20 percent of Marylanders who have some college credits but no degree, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
For example, public institutions and state agencies are teaming up to create a mandated statewide campaign to identify "near completers" and to try to entice them back to finish their degrees. The law defines near completers as former community college students who hold 45 credits or more and four-year students with at least 90 credits.
The legislation requires public, four-year institutions to accept more credits that students earn at Maryland community colleges (see below). And it will make both community colleges and four-year institutions be more thrifty with their programmatic degree requirements. Under the law, four-year institutions must set a limit of 120 credits for bachelor’s degrees, with some exceptions. Likewise, most associate degree programs will be 60 credits.
In Maryland community college graduates were accumulating  an average of 75 credits to earn a degree in 3.8 years.
That won't cut it any more. But to get down to the 60-credit standard, colleges will be forced to eliminate degree requirements and some course offerings.
One aspect that might come with some costs for colleges is the requirement that all students attending four-year institutions create a plan for earning a degree before they accumulate 45 credits. Students must draft their plans with the help of an academic adviser, who will also be called in if students fail to hit defined benchmarks on their way toward graduation.
If colleges don’t have enough advisers to get that work done, they will have to hire more.
However, those and other mandates in the legislation are more palatable to many educators in the state than a performance-funding formula would be. But several sources said lawmakers are contemplating performance funding as a possible next step.
Maryland in 2012 received $1 million from Complete College America, a nonprofit group that is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has been a visible champion of the college completion "agenda." The state is submitting data on several metrics to the group as part of the grant.
Dominique Raymond, vice president of state relations for Complete College America’s Alliance of the States, said the Maryland bill addresses all of her group’s priority issues . She also praised the state for trying bridge the gap between high school and college.
"This is a package suite," Raymond said. "It ensures alignment in a big way."
Several community college leaders said the measure’s approach to dual enrollment might help boost college readiness.
It requires K-12 systems to pick up most of the tab for up to four college courses a dually enrolled student takes. In the fall semester, more than 5,000 Maryland high school students gave dual enrollment a whirl. And those numbers are expected to grow.
Not everything made it into the final legislation, however. Community college leaders had pushed for a common course number system. They argued that having English 101 refer to the same course across all institutions would have made the transfer process smoother. But that idea didn’t get enough traction.
However, community college officials will have plenty of chances to push for additions (and deletions) to the legislation. The three lawmakers who sponsored the measure recently met with the presidents of all the state’s two-year colleges, and said they wanted to hear what changes need to be made as the various pieces go into effect.
"The people who crafted the legislation are very thoughtful," said Gottfried.
Details on Maryland’s College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013
The legislation sets a goal for at least 55 percent of Marylanders between the ages of 25 and 64 to hold at least an associate degree by 2025. It also seeks for all degree-seeking students who are enrolled at a community college in the state to earn an associate degree before leaving the college or transferring to a public four-year institution.
Reverse transfer agreement
The commission must also by July 2016 create a statewide reverse transfer agreement through which at least 30 credits that a student earns toward a bachelor degree at any public, four-year institution in the state are transferrable to an community college in the state for credit toward an associate degree.
Each undergraduate student enrolled in a public, four-year institution must file a degree plan charting a pathway to completion with the institution before earning 45 credits. Students who transfer in with at least 45 credits must submit the plan during their first semester. The plans must be developed in consultation with an academic adviser in the student’s degree program, if such an adviser is available.
Standard number of credit hours
The law sets the standard number of credits for a bachelor’s degree at 120. And beginning in 2015, the standard number of credits for an associate degree will be 60. However, there are exceptions to these standards, which colleges can also add to in consultation with the commission.
High school curriculum and graduation requirements
By 2015 the state Board of Education will require that students at all public schools must be assessed for college readiness in English and mathematics before their senior year. Beginning with the following year, community colleges and local school systems must create “transition courses” for high school seniors who are not deemed college ready.
Statewide transfer agreements
By July 2016 the Maryland Higher Education Commission, in collaboration with public institutions, must develop a statewide transfer agreement through which at least 60 credits of general education, elective and major courses that a student earns toward a degree at any Maryland community college must be transferrable for credit toward a bachelor degree at any public, four-year institution in the state.
The commission and each public institution must create incentives for students to obtain an associate degree before enrolling in a public, four-year institution. They must also create a statewide communications campaign to identify near completers – students who have earned at least 45 credits at a community college or at least 90 credits at a four-year institution – and offer incentives for them to re-enroll and earn a degree.
Pathways to a degree
Each public institution must develop a pathway system that includes graduation progress benchmarks. The benchmarks must specify the credit and course criteria that indicate satisfactory progress to a degree. They must also require each first-time, degree-seeking student to include credit-bearing mathematics and English courses during their first 24 earned credits. Students who are danger of falling behind will be required to consult with an academic adviser.
A public institution may not charge tuition to a student who is dually-enrolled in a public, K12 school. Local school districts must pick up large portions of the price for up to four college courses in which the student is enrolled.
College and career counseling plan
The Maryland State Department of Education must work with public colleges and universities to develop a plan to improve college and career counseling for students in middle and high schools.