ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Maryland hopes to be the fourth state to offer free community college to recent high school graduates, but the effort to do so faces an uphill challenge because legislators cannot agree on how to spend the state’s surplus money.
Delegate Keith E. Haynes introduced a bill that would offer free community college for holders of high school diplomas or GEDs and reduce their tuition if they are searching for jobs. He also introduced two other bills to offer families tax credits for any money used for community college and to split the cost of community college between the state and local governments.
“We’re hoping that this is the year that we can move forward so we don’t lose sight of the primary goal, and we can look at some ways to fund this,” said Mr. Haynes, Baltimore Democrat.
Many states have considered some kind of free higher education, such as California’s need-based fee waivers and Florida’s pathway to community college for students right out of high school.
In the past two years, three states have passed legislation for free community college, and President Obama began pushing for the federal government to join states and make two-year college education free for everyone. That national attention gave the cause momentum, said Martha Parham, vice president of marketing and public relations of the American Association of Community Colleges.
“It makes sense that investing in education will bring a return on investment for both students and communities,” Ms. Parham said. “I think the initiative has received attention because of the Obama administration’s call for the need for more college-educated Americans and the realization that some higher education is needed for a 21st-century workforce.”
In 2014, Tennessee enacted the Tennessee Promise program, which made community college free for every in-state student. It used a last-dollar setup, which means students first have to apply for other sources of financial aid such as Pell Grant funding or scholarships, and then the state pays the remaining balance.
Tennessee was followed by Oregon, which said it would give every student a $1,000 stipend even if they found financial aid to cover tuition costs, and Minnesota, which covers only high-demand majors.
By the National Conference of State Legislatures’ count, nine other states have introduced bills this year to pay for community college, and many more cities and counties across the country have tried to take on the financial burden of footing the bill.
This seems like momentum, but to see states actually institute such policies may take years, said Dustin Weeden, a senior higher education policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“A lot of it is going to depend on what happens in Tennessee,” he said. “If Tennessee continues to have lots of success, and early reports say it has been successful in getting students, and if they’re successful in helping them graduate and boosting higher education in the state, we could really see another resurgence of this idea.”
The initiative is not new in Maryland, either. Allegany and Garrett counties already are paying for community college for students who graduate from their high schools.
In the Democrat-led General Assembly, the initiative has bipartisan support — but lawmakers are not sure how the state can fund it.
Mr. Haynes said he hopes the state can find funding, considering that it has taken in more money than expected for the upcoming fiscal year and has a $500 million fund balance.
Delegate Nicholaus Kipke, Anne Arundel Republican, said he wants to make college more affordable but that he is interested in controlling the “exploding” cost of four-year universities in the state.
“I think more and more Marylanders are taking advantage of the bargain in our community colleges and choosing that step. Choosing to start their college careers there is a wise decision,” he said, “especially considering that there’s a guaranteed transfer after your second year to a Maryland university.”
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said he is interested in college affordability and that it is on the Democratic agenda for the session.
“We cannot continue to burden middle-class Marylanders with high-interest student loans,” said Mr. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh said the state is just coming out of a recession and she is concerned about providing money for new programs too quickly.
“It’s like an airplane taking off. You’ve got to take off at a certain [angle], you can’t be going straight up because you might end up coming straight back down,” the Baltimore Democrat said. “We have to be cautious about how much we spend. We will spend more. By the end of the session, we’ll have passed bills with big [budgets], but I’m not sure how large they can be.”
According to the bill’s analysis, giving tuition waivers for community colleges could cost the state $65.4 million in the upcoming budget and increase to $74.5 million a year by 2021.
That concerns Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. While he supports the concept, he said, the state has to figure out a better way to fund it so community colleges don’t get stuck with the bill in case of a budget shortfall.
“Our concern with this particular legislation is that it establishes tuition waivers for students at community colleges without a guarantee that the revenue lost would be reimbursed by the state,” he said. “Currently, there is no excess funding in the Education Trust Fund, and the formula funding that determines state aid for community colleges remains deficient, having been reduced eight times since the downturn of the economy.”
Since funding is so critical, real movement toward states embracing the idea of funding community colleges would probably take some federal partnership, Mr. Weeden said.
“If there was some federal and state partnership here, it would probably increase its adoption,” he said. “If the federal government passed something along the lines of what President Obama proposed, with the federal government putting up a significant portion of the costs, that would be an impetus for more states to move quicker.”