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DeRionne P. Pollard, Ph.D. Headshot

A Maryland Dream That Needs to Become a National Dream

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Maryland voters made history on November 6 by resoundingly voting in support of the Maryland Dream Act, which ensures that all of our young people have the opportunity to pursue affordable higher education. It's time for the rest of our country to follow suit.

As the Washington Post reports, this is the first time a state has approved a version of the Dream Act through the popular vote. About a dozen other states have laws or policies supporting principles of the Dream Act.

What does the Maryland Dream Act do? It extends in-state tuition to "Dreamers," Maryland high school graduates who are undocumented, but came to this country as children. It means that these young people, eager to better their lives at Maryland's public colleges and universities, no longer have to pay expensive, out-of-state tuition rates as they work toward a degree.

As the president of Montgomery College, Maryland's largest community college, I know why the passage of the Dream Act was so crucial:

Because given the skills required by the new economy, Maryland needs every high school graduate to get a college degree or certificate. After all, more than 75 percent of Maryland's job openings are in middle and high skills jobs that require post-secondary education.

Because Dreamers don't get diplomas just handed to them; they have to work hard to achieve their goals.

Because how can we deny the American Dream to a group of young people simply because of the circumstance of their birth?

And because history has shown us time and time again what happens when we fail to provide equal educational opportunities to all.

There will be those who oppose the Dream Act because they say it takes college seats from native-born students -- that Dreamers are somehow competition. I would argue that Maryland carefully crafted legislation that provides a level playing field to ensure equity for all Maryland students. Families of Dreamers must file income taxes, and the students must pursue permanent residency. All Dreamers must earn their first 60 credits from a community college before they are eligible to transfer to a four-year public university in Maryland at the in-state tuition rate.

Montgomery College's board chair and I shared the story of one such student, Jonathan, in a local opinion piece last month. Jonathan, who came to Maryland as a child, almost didn't enroll in college due to prohibitive costs, despite an outstanding grade point average and more than a thousand hours of community service in high school. The good news: Jonathan will achieve the American Dream because he found an affordable option at his community college, and because he combined clear goals with hard work.

I hope other states will follow the lead of Maryland and pass their own versions of the Dream Act. Even better, let's hope for the passage of the federal version of the Dream Act. As Montgomery College student Joel Sati told The Chronicle of Higher Education, "If we have enough states that pass Dream Act laws, it's going to reach the sort of critical mass at which, maybe at the federal level, people will start saying 'O.K., let's have a national conversation about this, let's actually get this done.'"

And for all who fret that the American Dream is at risk, I would say, look again. Look carefully at the thousands of students enrolled at our nation's community colleges -- native-born students and immigrants, young and old, working hard and accessing education with the goal of a better life.

I'll use this blog in the coming months to talk about the relevance of America's community colleges -- the relevance of the community college to students like Jonathan, to job changers, to students who struggled in high school and to those who excelled but faced financial or family challenges.

I'm eager to hear your ideas for future blogs and your reaction to this one. Together, let's engage in a deliberative and even provocative conversation about the role of the community college in the 21st century -- our role in achieving the American Dream. Because let's face it: With 13 million students, community colleges are a significant force in any discussion involving our country's future. It's time to talk.