Scholarship Shame

October 20, 1992

For more than a decade, Maryland lawmakers have considered various bills to reform the state's legislative scholarship program. That's the 124-year-old program through which legislators award college grants to students in their respective districts. During this fiscal year alone, the 140 members of the House of Delegates will hand out $1.47 million in scholarships, while the Senate's 47 members will award a total of $5.8 million.

The reform measures have routinely been shot down. Why? Because the state-funded program is a political perk legislators are loath to relinquish.

Yet eight lawmakers have surrendered their scholarship funds. What they hope to do is shame their colleagues into abolishing the program.

This program is an embarrassment. Ours is the only state where political scholarships still exist. Too many elected officials have been bestowing aid -- usually no more than $800 per student -- on the children of associates and campaign workers, or even on their own relatives.

Legislators argue their hand-picked recipients are as needy as anyone else, or that committees have been set up to choose appropriate scholarship candidates. It isn't who gets the grants that bothers detractors, though. It's who passes out the grants.

Critics say a scholarship of up to $800 won't have much impact in an era when four years of college can leave a student and his or her family tens of thousands of dollars in the red. The true beneficiaries of the grants are the pols themselves, who know all too well that even a small award will make the recipient and his or her family feel beholden to the politician making the award.

No wonder legislators have fought like mad to keep this perk. In fact, rather than reform or diminish it, they voted four years ago to increase the scholarship fund nearly threefold by 1995, to more than $8 million.

Boosting the amount of financial aid available to Maryland students is a fine idea. Heaven knows most students could use the help. However, the legislature should get out of the scholarship business and leave grant designations to the professionals at the State Scholarship Administration. As the courageous eight lawmakers have indicated, it's time to do away with this unnecessary and embarrassing program.

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