Removing Barriers — How Maryland Legislators Can Make The State More Worker-Friendly
National economic forces have generated demand for workers to possess ever-increasing levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities. However, obtaining both sufficient employment prospects and income remain contingent upon having a college degree — something often out of the reach for many due to socioeconomic or other reasons.
If the health of an education system is assessed through achievement and attainment, it is critical that Maryland legislators follow the Baltimore example in removing barriers to success. Specifically, it is time that the Maryland General Assembly make community college available — free of tuition and fees — for all county residents.
Education policy can either bolster or undercut our life opportunities and experiences. Thus, in Maryland, children are required to begin school at age five. Yet, despite spending 13+ years earning a high school diploma and even an associate’s degree, their skill sets are still deemed insufficient by hiring managers.
A globalized economy means that Maryland workers, consequently, navigate national disparities. Data from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, supplemented by recent research from economist William Darity Jr., reveal that Black heads of household with a college degree have under two-thirds of the net worth of white heads of household who never finished high school. Given that family wealth is a predictor of both college attendance and college completion, this dynamic is illustrated in Maryland in metrics including the eight-to-one racial wealth disparity between the average white family and the average Black family.
Black students are more likely to take on loans and debt, thus, wealth position can deteriorate from the pursuit of higher education. Therefore, they are more likely than white students to drop-out of a university because of financial concerns. While not having a higher education should not render someone poor, Maryland is in a unique position as America’s wealthiest state per capita in the country with world-class academic institutions. It is these circumstances of record state budget surpluses, low college enrollment, and extreme wealth inequality that demand that Maryland support all workers whether or not they enroll in higher education institutions.
The college degree is a barrier to gainful employment for many Marylanders. For the state of Maryland to produce successful workers and the desired “world-class education system,” it is essential to address challenges to academic achievement. That involves analyzing labor market data, community advocacy, and annual earnings based on socioeconomic factors.
To this end, Bowie State University, a historic Black academic institution, has implemented the Second Chance Pell Grant Program for incarcerated people in Maryland Correctional Institutions. This effort was piloted by the Obama administration and expanded by the Biden administration. A majority of Maryland’s prisoners have been Pell-eligible but face a series of sanctions from the 1994 Crime Bill.
Student classification is a common point of divergence in grant programs. In Baltimore County, the full-time, part-time and workforce certification programs are now free of tuition and fees to any Baltimore County family making less than $150,000 a year. Elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic, Delaware scholarship recipients must have a diploma from an in-state school or be a resident. In Tennessee, any student can use the Tennessee Hope last-dollar scholarship at both four-year and two-year institutions.
Because 15.4% of the Maryland population is foreign-born, as reported by the Migration Policy Institute in 2019, the Maryland legislature has a duty to ensure that grant applicant qualifications provide equitable opportunity for all. According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are clear racial disparities in academic achievement. While 62 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have no bachelor’s degree, that number rises to 72 percent for Black adults and 79 percent for Hispanic adults. Even though nationwide issues generally demand a federal response, it is at the state level that legislators or universities themselves have taken the initiative to establish programs that foster an educated workforce and bolster college enrollment.
It is common knowledge that the fastest growing occupations give way to openings for high-demand jobs. In Virginia, West Virginia, and Arkansas, for example, the three states have established skills training certificate programs of immediate value in the job market. West Virginia, uniquely, cedes authority to the West Virginia Department of Commerce in the determination of what is a “high-demand field.”. Because workforce resilience and worker safety is a societal concern, it is crucial that the Maryland legislature coordinate with students, local businesses, grassroots organizers, and leading social scientists to chart a course. This will encourage state-level policy initiatives that provide workers with the tools they need for success.
Community colleges remain popular points of access to direct job training, certification, and professional development resources. However, traditional systems of inequality have hobbled Marylanders’ economic mobility throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; so, bolstering workforce resilience and human welfare will offer the state greater utility and capacity in future destabilizing events. Therefore, Marylanders should advocate based on the legislature’s obligation to equip workers with ample options and academic opportunity.