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Increasing Access to Higher Education in Montgomery County: An Economic Imperative

By Michael Knapp, Chair, Montgomery College Board of Trustees.

Since the presidential campaigns of 2016, candidates for numerous state and local offices have identified providing free access to college as a campaign issue that polls well, primarily because of high cost of college.  Unfortunately there have been very few candidates who have actually thought through the practical elements of what this means: What do you pay for – tuition only? Who is eligible? What schools are included? And most important, how is it paid for?  As the Maryland General Assembly goes into session this week and we begin an historic election year in Montgomery County, we wanted to raise this important issue and provide some perspective on how it can be considered.

At Montgomery College, providing affordable access isn’t a poll-tested tagline, it’s an economic imperative without which our community and residents won’t grow to meet the needs of the future.  We know that without a skilled workforce our employers can’t grow and without clear career pathways into the workforce most residents won’t be able to move into jobs that provide a wage that will allow them to live in our community.  As a result, we take this discussion very seriously and have given a great deal of thought about how to make increasing access a reality for thousands of members of our community.

With an issue this important, there must be a framework of key principles to form a foundation on which to build such a plan. We see those as the following.

  • Any program will require significant public and private investment, and there must be a clearly defined return on investment that includes providing clear pathways for students into the workforce and a pipeline of skilled workers for local employers.
  • Increasing access to college for students often requires considering more than just free or reduced tuition — it may mean providing assistance with transportation, childcare, food, and housing.
  • Free isn’t free — all students must be willing to provide a measurable contribution to their own success in return for increased access.
  • The path to higher education and the resources needed must be clear and transparent so that all who are interested can readily take advantage.
  • The program must be sustainable — there must an identified and consistent source of revenue to make this program reality each year.
  • Success must be defined and the outcomes measured.

We know that at least 65 percent of all jobs require an education beyond high school and that, in a community like Montgomery County with such a high cost of living; it is an imperative to ensure that residents have ready access to the skills needed by local employers.  In addition, the goal set by the College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013 is that 55 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 will hold an at least an associate’s degree by 2025, and this degree must be able to assist residents in obtaining skills employers need.  Yet, even with the vital importance of this type of program it is also critical that this not be just another debt that will be borne by the students or the community to pay later—there must be a real and sustainable funding source.  We have explored models throughout the nation and are developing a series of recommendations to present for consideration with our civic, political, and business leadership.  The important thing to note is that there are innovative strategies that we can use to implement this program beyond just raising taxes on our residents.

Montgomery County’s economic and wage growth has slowed, and we are on the verge of an election season that will have an unprecedented number of candidates seeking local and state elected office.  Now is the time to have a real conversation about how to provide increased access to higher education for the benefit of our community.  Our ability to get this done will have a lasting impact on the lives of our residents and our local economy — the leadership of Montgomery College is committed to working with all interested parties in making this critical concept a reality, provided that they are committed to a real dialogue that addresses the principles we’ve outlined and not just looking for an easy sound bite.

Michael Knapp served on the Montgomery County Council from 2002 through 2010.

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