Marc Kilmer: Tuition subsidy won’t boost Wicomico

Just because politicians label something as “economic development” doesn’t make it so.

That’s a lesson that is clear from past failed economic development initiatives, and it’s a lesson that should remembered when discussing the recent proposal for the so-called “Wor-Wic Economic Impact Scholarship.”

Supporters of this subsidy plan have made bold claims about its impact on our county’s economy. They point to the fact that Wicomico has a relatively low college graduation rate. They talk about how businesses need better educated workers.

These points are not in dispute. The problems are indeed real. There is little evidence to indicate that this scholarship program will address these problems, however.

For the claims about this program to be true, then one of the major issues holding back our county’s economy is Wor-Wic’s high tuition. After all, the only problem being addressed by this subsidy is paying for tuition.

Considering that Wor-Wic has some of the lowest tuition rates in the state, I do not see how this could be causing huge problems for Wicomico.

Even if you view high tuition as a problem, there is only a small slice of the county’s population that would be served by this tuition subsidy.

If you go to Wor-Wic part-time because you have to work to feed your family, you won’t receive any help. If you’ve worked a couple years after graduating and want to return to college, this wouldn’t help.

If you are a low-income student, Pell Grants (not this program) will pay for your tuition. If you want to attend a certificate class to obtain a specific job skill, then you would also be left out of this program.

Because of these issues and others, county council members had concerns that we made abundantly clear during budget work sessions.

Some suggested that the executive come back to us with a resolution that authorizes spending on this plan and outlines who would qualify for it. That way council members could work with the executive to address the deficiencies we saw with its design.

Speaking for myself, I also had issues that go beyond the plan’s details. These concerns included whether the government should pay for a student’s community college tuition.

I view a college education as an investment in one’s future earning capacity. It is not being hard-hearted to be skeptical of calls for taxpayers to shoulder this expense for a student.

Some labeled this as “free” tuition. In fact, it would be an expensive program for county taxpayers. Once it was running, it would cost taxpayers at least $665,000.

If tuition at Wor-Wic increased (as may happen due to state mandates), then subsidy costs would increase, too. This is at least $665,000 every year taken from the taxpayers that will not be spent on the core government services.

At the county level, we struggle to maintain our roads, fund EMT and fire services adequately, and pay for other necessary government functions. These funding issues co-exist with a high tax burden on county residents.

Over the past two years, the executive has proposed increasing spending by nearly $9 million. This type of spending increase is unsustainable in the long run.

I do not support adding the cost of this entitlement program to the weight already being borne by county taxpayers.

Wor-Wic is a great community college. We are lucky to have such a fine institution located here. That is why the council did not touch the budget allocation for Wor-Wic’s operation.

My opposition to this tuition subsidy is not about Wor-Wic, but the flawed proposal put forth by the executive.

Too often, politicians propose policies that sound great and generate nice headlines but do not have real substance behind them. That is the case with this subsidized tuition program. There are many barriers facing Wicomico County residents who struggle to obtain a college degree.

Let’s have a real conversation about these barriers, then craft policies to address them. This expensive subsidy program is not what we need.

Marc Kilmer of Salisbury represents District 2 on the Wicomico County Council.

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