The seduction of good intentions
In yesterday’s Salisbury Independent, County Councilman Marc Kilmer discussed his concerns about a tuition assistance program proposed by community leaders and supported by County Executive Bob Culver. The aim of this Wor-Wic College proposal would be to assist Wicomico County high school students by supplementing their available financial aid, with an estimated cost once the program is underway of $665,000 annually.
One of the examples cited by the backers of the Wor-Wic Economic Impact Scholarship is that of Garrett County at the far western end of Maryland, which has a similar program. I’m sure those on County Council have seen this document, but the Garrett County Commissioners have produced a (somewhat dated) report on the Garrett County Scholarship Program, which they began way back in 2006 – so the 2014 report had several years’ worth of data to evaluate its success.
A couple things to bear in mind are that Garrett County is not one of the wealthier counties in Maryland, and in terms of its economic strength it would fit in well with the rural counties of the Eastern Shore. As the report authors note, the county is in a transition “from an economy traditionally based on agriculture, forest products, and mining to a more diversified economy based on tourism, commerce, light industry, and construction.” But it is also far smaller than Wicomico County in terms of population, with just over 30,000 people – imagine the city of Salisbury (but not the outskirts and densely populated nearby incorporated and unincorporated areas) spread out in a far larger geographic area, as Garrett is the second-largest county in the state when it comes to land area. It doesn’t have a large populated area, either, as the largest towns of Mountain Lake Park and Oakland (the county seat) hover around 2,000 residents apiece.
According to the commissioners’ report, between 1/3 and 2/5 of the eligible students in the county took advantage of the program, but in raw numbers the total was less impressive: from a fall 2008 peak of 138 recipients, the number declined over the next several years to a low of 79 in the fall of 2013 (the last year detailed by the report.) Yet the program comes with a significant cost due to some of its qualities: for FY2013 the price tag was $427,365 and for FY2017 the county has budgeted $500,000. However, the county also assists students who are dual-enrolled in one of its two high schools and Garrett College as well as a handful who are enrolled in non-degree certificate programs, as well as encouraging students to take more than the minimum 12 credit hours to maintain eligibility. They pick up that tab.
While the programs as envisioned here in Wicomico County and the Garrett County program have somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison to them, I think it’s fair to say that the local proposal is probably going to cost more than envisioned. Expanding the Garrett scholarship to non-degree certificate programs, while a sound idea, is an example of the mission creep that often occurs with the government getting involved. It’s also worth pointing out a spike in costs came when Garrett College tuition increased significantly in 2009.
Unfortunately, the one relevant piece of data we don’t have is whether these scholarship recipients remained to take (or create) jobs in the Garrett County region. According to state records, though, the workforce in Garrett has actually declined from 15,666 to 14,475 over the last decade (April 2006 – April 2016) for a drop of 7.6%. Conversely, Wicomico County declined from 49,566 to 47,504 in that same period, for a decrease of 4.2% – so by that measure the Garrett County program may not be very successful. (Yet the Garrett unemployment rate has only risen from 4.7% to 5.7% in comparison to a jump from 3.7% to 6% in Wicomico.)
One way of expressing the cost of this program is to equate it to property taxes. For each penny of property tax, Wicomico County collects about $570,000 (this is assuming I am reading the budget correctly, of course. But it sounds about right based on my experience.) So this would be a little over a penny out of the 95 cents or so the county collects out of every $100 of property valuation. The owner of a house assessed at $200,000 would pay about $20 a year toward this goal. If that seems worth it to give students a break, then support the scholarship program.
But if I may make a couple suggestions: I think the total expenditure should be capped and given out on a first come, first served basis. I understand not everyone makes snap decisions well, but in order to be fiscally responsible we can’t let this mushroom beyond its small percentage of the county budget. I would also reserve a number of slots for certificate programs Wor-Wic offers, similar to that element of Garrett’s program. Since a P-TECH school is not yet in the cards for Wicomico County, this can be the next best thing if done correctly.
It’s not likely any member of my family will take advantage of the program, but Kilmer is right to be a little skeptical of it at this stage. The county did set aside the money to begin the program once the questions are answered, though, so it’s possible an upcoming high school class will be the first to have this option.