Until yesterday, Shannon O'Connor thought more about the danger and fun of being a police officer when she grows up and less about what could help her to become one: a college degree.
And so Shannon was not as excited as the rest of a seventh-grade advance team preparing to wave their miniature Maryland flags for the governor at Canton Middle School: Whatever the governor said about scholarships when he came into the library wouldn't affect her, she thought, because police officers don't go to college.
But while it may not take a degree to become an officer, more and more officers are getting them, and many police departments require college work for promotions. Shannon could be one of thousands of students affected by the bill Gov. William Donald Schaefer was promoting yesterday.
Surrounded by 12-year-old prospective engineers, nurses, teachers, lawyers and a trombone player, the governor staged a mock signing of the Scholarship Reform Act of 1991. The centerpiece of the new state law is a free ride to college for children whose parents earn $25,000 or less, as long as they keep their high school grades up and choose a college in Maryland.
"Maybe it will help me," Shannon said, smiling.
About 5,000 students who start high school next fall may ultimately benefit from the new state program. When graduation rolls around four years hence, the state hopes to give $10 million to the smartest, neediest students -- a 50 percent increase in the scholarships now available to Maryland residents.
In addition, the state will try to meet 40 percent of the needs of middle-income students.
The Educational Excellence Award Program was sparked by Louisiana oil magnate Patrick F. Taylor who promised in 1988 to pay college education for 180 children if they earned good grades and then lobbied the state Legislature to make the same offer to all Louisiana children.
When the scholarship bill is formally signed into law Friday, Maryland will become the eighth state to institute a tuition-assistance guarantee for low-income students who study hard.
The new program "helps me a lot," said Teresa Brooks, 12, who said she wants to be a registered nurse.
Governor Schaefer told the students that college is not for everybody, and many people skip college and go on to be "pillars of the community, and that's OK." But he said college is a key to the nation's competitiveness. "It's not that difficult to meet the conditions," he said.
To qualify, children of needy parents need to earn a "B" high school average in college preparatory courses and stay away from drugs.
Juan Salinas, 12, who spends a lot of time "playing around," says he doesn't know if he can meet the academic challenge. On the other hand, he said, "My dad helps me study. This will make Dad help me study harder."
A central idea behind the guaranteed-aid program is to give middle-school students the impetus to think about college early enough to take the right high school courses to be admitted. Some Canton Middle School students said yesterday they are not only planning to go to college but already have one picked out. But instead of Maryland schools, they named the University of Michigan, Yale and the Julliard School of Music.
"Why not Johns Hopkins?" Maryland Secretary of Higher Education Shaila Aery asked Thomas Clifton, 13, who said he wanted to study electrical engineering at Michigan. "They [Michigan] have sports," he replied.
The new program won't provide any money to help Thomas do that, though. The scholarships can only be used at 56 higher education institutions in Maryland, including 17 community colleges, a host of public and private four-year colleges and two full-fledged research universities.