By MAREN WRIGHT
HAGERSTOWN, Md. (March 8, 2009)—A change in Pell Grant funding pending in the Senate could ease the tuition burden for all college students, but for those in community colleges the dollars will make even more of a difference.
An omnibus budget bill would increase the maximum per student award by $619 to $5,350. The Senate is scheduled to consider the measure next week.
"It's a nice increase for a community college student," said Melissa Gregory, the Montgomery College director of student financial aid. "It doesn't go as far for four year schools, but for our students, it makes a difference."
That's great news for Laura Brown, 19, of Keedysville, who turned to Hagerstown Community College when she could no longer afford Wilson College in Pennsylvania.
Brown is working part time and pays her own tuition, but it will take her parents 10 years to pay off her freshman year at Wilson, she said.
"I loved my first year at Wilson," Brown said. "But it was too expensive, way too expensive."
Brown has turned in financial aid paperwork, but doesn't know whether she'll get federal help. Eligibility for Pell Grants is based on a complex formula, but it includes parental income and assets, student income and the number of people in the household.
Lashawn Tolson, 20, of Hagerstown, receives Pell Grants that cover tuition at Hagerstown Community College, but it isn't quite enough for books and other expenses.
"I work over the summertime to save up for the next year," Tolson said.
Tolson may have another option as funding increases combine with a new Pell Grant policy this summer. The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act makes Pell Grants available for year-round enrollments.
"A motivated student could ramp up their credit hours over that full calendar year and get through school faster, and still get the additional money they need," Gregory said.
The Maryland Association of Community Colleges reports that almost a third of students in degree-earning programs received grants. About $63 million was awarded to more than 30,000 students attending community colleges in Maryland.
By living with his family and working a part-time job, Youssouf Diare, 19, of Gaithersburg said Pell Grants help him cover the cost of his education without loans.
Tuition at community colleges costs roughly $3,000 a year, compared to more than $6,000 at public universities in Maryland. College presidents say community colleges are about access, and affordability is key.
The low cost of Hagerstown Community College makes it workable for Kayla Hendricks, 18, of Clear Spring. She didn't qualify for financial aid, so she pays tuition out-of-pocket.
"My Dad pays half," Hendricks said, "But it (a tuition increase) will impact me a lot because right now I don't really have the money for it."
Hagerstown has been able to keep tuition increases to just 1 percent a year since 2006, but this year's budget is uncertain, said spokeswoman Beth Stull.
The lowest tuition in the state is at Harford Community College, but President Jim LaCalle is also concerned that the costs of rising enrollments might require a tuition increase.
With state and county recessionary budgets as tight as student wallets, community colleges were relieved to hear Gov. Martin O'Malley announce plans to use federal stimulus dollars for a 5 percent increase in community college funding.
"Once the governor increased the funding, we were able to freeze tuitions," said Chesapeake College President Barbara Vimiar.
Wor-Wic Community College President Ray Hoy said he hopes the governor's plan comes through, which will allow their tuition to remain stable. His college boasts the second-lowest tuition rate in the state.
At Prince George's Community College, the plan for this year was to focus on additional spending cuts so tuition is unaffected.
"You always talk about a tuition increase, but you then have to offset that with what the residents of the community you serve can bear," said Dr. Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George's Community College.
Students like Jennifer Gomez, 20, of Germantown, live the struggle between getting an education and having to pay for it. She works full time in a pediatric office while studying to be a surgical technician at Montgomery College.
"The first year they (federal grants) helped pay half my tuition, now not so much," Gomez said.
Gomez, like most students, is working through an education without rich parents while trying to avoid looming loans. Ask her if keeping community college affordable is important and her answer is clear.
"Oh yeah, definitely."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.