High school students across the nation are increasingly questioning the value of college. In a Gallup poll, just 36% of Americans have a “great deal” or quite a “lot of confidence” in higher education. The perceived value of a college degree is at an all-time low. Individuals see their peers weighed down by student loan debt exceeding an average of $30,000. While fewer students in Maryland are defaulting on their loans compared to those in other states, 1 in 3 recent bachelor’s degree graduates are left to wonder whether the degree is worth the cost.

For students from low-income households, higher education presents one of the most promising pathways to upward mobility. Students with bachelors’ degrees out-earn their peers with a high school diploma. Yet a vast majority of colleges remain financially out of reach for those who would benefit the most. A mere 24% of four-year public colleges and 40% of two-year public colleges are affordable.

Maryland represents a beacon of hope with higher college enrollment rates than other states. At Towson University, we are seeking to do our part, putting robust financial aid at the center of our mission and commitment to Baltimore and the state.

It’s why we’re honored to be named one of 28 “High-Flier” institutions in the American Talent Initiative, recognized by Bloomberg Philanthropies for leadership in expanding access and opportunities for talented students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. That work is more important than ever in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.

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We can do even more. Currently, only 38% of Baltimore’s high school graduates enroll in college, including first-generation students and students from low-income households. Consider such programs as the College Readiness Outreach Program (CROP), connecting Baltimore City ninth graders with student mentors who guide them through college readiness workshops. Colleges must deepen partnerships with high schools, directly linking high school and college counselors, administrators and student advocates.

We’re doing it here at Towson — nominating high school seniors from Baltimore public high schools for priority consideration for admission to TU. Data suggests this kind of program encourages talented lower-income Baltimore-area students to choose the power of a postsecondary education.

The work doesn’t end once students arrive on our campuses. The percentage of students continuing for a second year dropped in the wake of the pandemic. With investment in intensive first-year residential experiences, more students can navigate this fraught transition. Imagine if dozens of students in Baltimore received financial assistance for on-campus housing, as well as additional wraparound services and support, such as math boot camps and specialized advising.

Ensuring more people in the city and state receive this boost to pursue bachelor’s degrees isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s an economic opportunity. In Baltimore, employers in rapidly expanding sectors, including financial and professional services, health and bioscience technology, and advanced manufacturing are searching for more individuals with a postsecondary degree. More than 60 federal agencies and numerous research labs located within a 30-mile radius of the city require bachelor’s degrees for entry-level positions.

Higher education institutions can be the economic engines Maryland needs. In 2022, Towson University alone generated $2.1 billion in economic activity. Think of what would be possible with the full weight of every higher education institution in the state working side-by-side with employers.

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While historically recognized as a teacher’s college, we’re showing what’s possible when colleges adjust to the needs of the workforce. Our College of Health Professions has experienced remarkable growth, with 185% growth since 1998. We are now one of the leading pipelines for health care professionals in the state.

Higher education institutions must be affordable and accessible in a landscape where the promise of college is under question. If we can live up to that commitment, we can realize our economic and societal potential for the city, the state and our country.

Boyd Bradshaw, Ed.D., is Towson University’s vice president of enrollment management.