Our nation is facing a widening skills gap — one that has been exacerbated by the disruptive economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — creating an environment in which too many job seekers are not equipped with the skills to succeed in a rapidly diversifying and evolving global economy.

In the past, a high school diploma was enough to build a pathway to the American Dream. Unfortunately, this is simply no longer the case. Economists have estimated that by 2031 only 30% of jobs nationwide will be available to workers without a college degree. The economy of today — and tomorrow — demands more than a high school diploma.

As these workforce demands have changed, the cost of higher education has grown exponentially. According to U.S. News & World Report, average in-state tuition at public national universities has increased 175% since 2003. And, while the matter of student loan forgiveness for millions of Americans remains before the Supreme Court, millions more students and aspiring students remain unable to afford pursuing higher education in the first place.

In Baltimore County, we decided we could no longer wait for others to alleviate these challenges, opting instead to act now to ensure this generation can develop the skills to increase their earnings and succeed in the new economy. America’s community colleges are uniquely equipped to help students and families find an affordable and efficient pathway to higher education and achievement.

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While federal efforts to provide universal community college seem to remain in perpetual gridlock, we are moving forward in Baltimore County, showing how government can deliver on the promise of tuition-free community college.

Enrolling nearly 50,000 full- and part-time students every year, Community College of Baltimore County is an essential partner in Baltimore County’s local education system and in the Baltimore region’s workforce development pipeline. Whether students pursue a degree or job training for a trade, CCBC opens doors for anyone looking for a high-quality and accessible education.

Just one example: Late last year, Baltimore County and CCBC partnered with the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center to launch the Public Health Pathways Program. This workforce development pilot provides underserved residents with nursing training, dedicated financial wraparound support for needs such as child care and transportation and guaranteed employment at St. Joseph Medical Center while participants continue their nursing education — all at no cost. This is one innovative way to create modern career ladders while addressing a major workforce need. But government can — and should — do more.

In that spirit, we have made the expansion of the College Promise program a top priority. Maryland, like a growing number of states, offers Community College Promise scholarships: a “last dollar” program benefiting those who too often fall between the cracks — making too much to be Pell Grant eligible and yet still overburdened by the costs of education.

Baltimore County is one of just a few jurisdictions in our state that offers a local College Promise program to reduce barriers to opportunity. This investment has been an unbridled success. We have grown it nearly tenfold during the past four years. But these scholarships have excluded part-time or noncredit workforce training programs — preventing the majority of CCBC students from accessing them.

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To truly fulfill the promise inherent in the College Promise program, we are taking the next step by expanding our local scholarships, making community college available — free of tuition and fees — to any Baltimore County family making less than $150,000 a year. This near-universal coverage means any eligible resident seeking a full-time, part-time or workforce certification program will be able to attend CCBC tuition free.

This is a commonsense and practical step that state and local governments can take to build a modern education system — one that extends beyond the traditional K-12 public education model and helps realize community college’s potential as a launching pad for people’s careers.

As local jurisdictions embrace the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, including future workforce investment requirements, we are hopeful Maryland will recognize the value of our commitment and fund sustained investments in the Maryland Promise program to help ensure universal coverage becomes ubiquitous across our state in the years ahead.

Making community college universally affordable and attainable should be an initiative that congressional leaders of both parties wholeheartedly rally behind. It’s the fiscally prudent and socially responsible path forward in a post-COVID economy.

We are proud that Baltimore County is showing how local government can make tuition-free community college a reality by investing in our most important asset: our people. It’s time for all of Maryland — and the country — to do the same.

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Baltimore County Executive John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. is a former teacher.


Twitter: @BaltCoExec.

Sandra L. Kurtinitis is president of Community College of Baltimore County.