Scholarships for the Poor

April 25, 1991

In a legislative session not noted for education achievements, the 1991 General Assembly quietly approved one measure that will dramatically transform the way the state hands out most of its scholarship money to college students. For the first time, the bulk of the money will be distributed according to financial need.

This means a large increase in the amount of aid given to low-income students. The very neediest students could receive almost full scholarships at a Maryland college. Other low- and moderate-income students will have a chance to receive up to $3,000 a year for college.

There are other innovative aspects, such as grants to part-timers (a boon to community college students), a loan forgiveness program for graduates who work in math- or science-related fields and an early-identification program. Under this last approach, students would be identified as potential scholarship recipients in the eighth grade, given college-preparatory courses and tutored in math and science. The state would guarantee them up to $3,000 a year in aid at any Maryland school.

This initiative, devised by Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery, could become a national model. It eliminates the politically motivated requirement that aid be spread evenly among the 47 legislative districts and based not only on financial need but on national test scores of a recipient. Those provisions have helped bright middle- and upper- class students but have meant a smaller pool of money available to poor students.

Sadly, the student-aid reform package failed to address Maryland's biggest embarrassment -- the $6 million senatorial and delegate scholarship program. This patronage boondoggle lets politicians use scholarships to help out friends, relatives and allies with no requirement that the money be allocated on the basis of need. It is an antiquated program that should have been abolished long ago.

Ms. Aery decided not to attack that sensitive program this year, a wise move in that it allowed the rest of her proposal pass with almost no opposition. Ms. Aery had carefully laid the groundwork for easy passage by spending 18 months fine-tuning the plan and hashing out differences during public hearings. When the Educational Excellence Awards begin flowing in 1995, the biggest beneficiaries will be the students who need financial help to most. This is an admirable approach that should increase the number of poor students making it to college, giving them a far better shot at success.

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