By Michael Dannenberg

Over the next couple of weeks as Marylanders ready to send their kids to college, Gov. Larry Hogan is apt to take a victory lap for recently signing into law a half-measure on college affordability: free tuition to any Maryland community college for state residents who enroll within two years of high school graduation or obtaining a GED.

While “free” sounds like a win, don’t be misled. Maryland’s “free college” promise provides just enough resources to get middle-class students into the classroom, but not enough to ensure they’re in the right college for them, prepared to succeed, or will go on to graduate. In fact, under Maryland’s plan more than 50 percent of students are likely to drop out of the community colleges to which they’ve been channeled instead of completing a degree. Those dropouts will still incur student loan debt along the way. And they’ll default at a rate that’s four times as high as their peers who do graduate. Worse, Maryland’s new plan will provide nothing—zero dollars—to students from families with incomes in the bottom 20 percent.

The next Governor (either a re-elected Hogan or Democratic nominee Ben Jealous) should deliver “a real college promise” for middle and low-income students who want not only to enroll in a public college, but graduate from one. It should cover the total cost of attendance, be available at four- and two-year public colleges, and spur improvement in high school preparation as well as postsecondary institution quality.

Michael Dannenberg, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy at Education Reform Now. (Courtesy Photo/LinkedIn)

Gov. Hogan’s free college plan fails the affordability test, because it only covers tuition and fees. Books, supplies, transportation, and living expenses add up to more than the cost of tuition and fees. In fact, they constitute more than half of what college actually costs. In many cases, books and supplies alone cost more than community college tuition.

Moreover, Maryland’s is a “last dollar” program meaning it only covers tuition expenses that aren’t first otherwise covered by federal aid. The maximum federal Pell Grant that goes to low-income families is now almost $6,100 – more than tuition and fees at every Maryland community college.

So, Maryland’s plan is basically only for the middle class and effectively channels them away from four-year schools into two-year community colleges. A real college promise program doesn’t do that.

Community college is a wonderful option for many students, particularly those pursuing short-term vocational certificates or an associate’s degree. It seems like a cost-efficient start for those who plan to transfer and get a four-year degree, which nearly 70 percent of postsecondary education students want, because community colleges charge lower tuition levels. But it turns out, the community college to bachelor’s degree path doesn’t work for most students.

A student who enrolls in a community college but is qualified to attend a four-year school is 30 percentage points less likely to complete their degree compared to an identical student who attends a four-year school. Why?

Students lose 25 percent of credits when transferring. Those who struggle with the high school to college transition, as most students do, benefit from greater student support services at more generously resourced four-year colleges as opposed to two-year schools. And last, students surrounded by academically stronger peers tend to do better academically.

There is a critical need to ensure students with the talent, desire, and drive to attend a four-year college have the opportunity to do so uninhibited by inability to pay. Under-matching to attend a two-year school doesn’t work for most kids or our future.

Of greatest concern though is that too many new students are not ready to complete college on time, if at all. For most, high school isn’t rigorous enough.

Nationally, one in four students who immediately enters college upon high school exit has to take at least one remedial course. Contrary to conventional belief, nearly half of remedial students are middle class and nearly half attend four-year institutions as opposed to community colleges. Overall, they are 74 percent more likely to dropout than their non-remedial peers.

A real college promise plan is one that provides resources for high school reform policies like upgraded academic programs for all, one-on-one tutoring, and extended learning time during the school year and over the summer.

Finally, a real college promise plan invests in institution of higher education improvement. A number of colleges have invested in new initiatives that are improving student outcomes.

The University of Maryland (UMD), for example, has shown introductory courses can be redesigned from “sage on the stage” operations to “flipped classrooms” where lectures are delivered at home on line and class time is used for problem sets and coached work. For Introductory Chemistry, UMD costs-per-student were reduced from $268 to $80 while the percentage passing with a ‘C’ or better rose from 50 percent to 70 percent.

True college access, affordability, and the reforms necessary to get better outcomes cost, but they pay off in the end.

Maryland is a relatively wealthy state. It shouldn’t try to do free college on the cheap. It should do it right.

Michael Dannenberg is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy at Education Reform Now, a non-profit think tank partner to the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform. Previously he served as a senior advisor in the Obama administration and senior counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA).