It's Time to Kill Scholarship Scam

January 30, 1994

Here we go again. Once more, there are rumblings in the General Assembly to abolish the scam by which state legislators annually award scholarships totaling more than $7 million in public funds to college students.

Criticisms of this shameful 126-year-old program, the only one of its kind in the United States, have echoed over decades at least as far back as the 1930s. But they have grown louder and more insistent within the last few years, in the wake of reports and studies that have revealed some outrageous facts about the program. For example:

* According to Common Cause of Maryland, in fiscal 1990 the lawmakers handed out $572,000 in scholarships to 1,200 students with no financial need as determined by state standards. More than 80 grants were given that year to families with incomes ranging from $80,000 to $172,000. And in fiscal 1991, a $500 grant was given to a student from a family with a $263,000 income.

* The Washington Post reported in 1989 that $1.5 million went to students without financial need, while 2,700 students with need were refused.

* Lawmakers have often bestowed scholarships on the children of friends, campaign workers and associates -- underscoring the point that the awards are used mainly to reap political good will. Certain pols have even given grants to members of their families, including their own children.

* A state study showed non-white students received markedly ** fewer grants from legislators last year than they did from the state's general, need-based scholarship fund. Some 1,600 minority students would have gained $1 million more in aid if the legislative kitty had been folded into the general fund, which awards 75 percent of state scholarship money. (Black lawmakers defend the legislative program as a way for them to see personally to the needs of minority students in their districts.)

A reform bill made unprecedented progress during the 1993 session in Annapolis, sailing through the House of Delegates. Most House members had realized that public distaste over this garish perk was starting to outweigh its political benefit. But state Senators, the most stubborn proponents of the scholarship give-away, had another view of the matter. When the House bill got to the Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, that panel blocked the measure by a 7-4 vote.

This year, there appear to be enough committee votes finally to recommend a bill that would transfer the legislative grants to the general fund. Would the senators then approve it? They ought to, unless they want to be clobbered on the campaign trail this fall for clinging to a program that many voters rightly believe must be killed once and for all.

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