School grants cause worry

State's scholarships could cost students, Hopkins official says

`This can become a loan'

Higher education chief defends funds aimed to bolster work force

August 16, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The state's Science and Technology Scholarship program has come under criticism from one of the schools it is supposed to benefit -- the Johns Hopkins University, where officials say it could end up costing students money.

"We want our students to see this as a loan that could turn into a grant, not a grant that could become a loan," said Ellen Frishberg, director of student financial services at Hopkins. She is cautioning entering students about accepting the scholarships, which will go to about 700 students in the fall -- far below the 2,000 expected, despite an extended deadline and a summer of publicity.

Designed to bolster the state's work force, the program gives Maryland students who major in certain computer and engineering fields $3,000 yearly grants to use at any college in Maryland.

Those grants become loans if a student fails to maintain a B average, stops majoring in one of the approved fields or, after graduation, does not work in the state in a technical job one year for every year the grant was awarded.

In a letter sent to students who had been offered the scholarship, Frishberg said the interest rate -- prime rate plus 2 percentage points -- is 9.75 percent, while federally subsidized student loans are available at 6.92 percent.

Frishberg also noted that interest under the scholarship program would start accruing immediately should a student become disqualified, though interest on most student loans is deferred until after graduation.

"It's just a bad bet because there are so many ways this can become a loan," she said. "These are very difficult majors. It is very easy to slip below a B or to decide to change to another field. And you are dealing with freshmen who can easily change their minds. What if when they graduate, they get a job offer in California?"

She contends that most students are better off taking a conventional student loan at the lower interest rate.

But Patricia Florestano, the state's secretary of higher education and head of the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC), which administers the program, said, "I don't understand why Hopkins would be raising objections like this with the type of students they get."

Florestano said the commission is aware of the interest rate problem and is preparing legislation to correct it, but that she was "offended" by the Hopkins letter.

"The governor and the legislature worked hard to come up with a program that would benefit the students of the state, and we have heard nothing about these problems from Hopkins during that process," she said. "I don't think it is right for an institution to cast doubts like this on an award that has been given to their students."

The program originally drew criticism because it fell short of meeting its 2,000-student goal. By its May 1 deadline, the program had 690 approved applicants -- 29 planning to attend Hopkins, according to MHEC.

The deadline was extended, and the commission tried to distribute information about the program to all entering freshmen planning to major in an approved field. The result, according to MHEC, was 769 participants as the program drew more takers -- but also lost students.

However, the MHEC figures might not be up to date. They show 11 scholarship recipients planning to attend Hopkins, while Frishberg said only two freshmen will enroll with Science and Technology Scholarship money. All new Hopkins students who qualified for the scholarship received a letter from Frishberg.

Florestano disputed part of Frishberg's letter that said the program allows students to defer the beginning of payment for only one year after receiving an undergraduate degree, even if students go on to graduate school.

But Frishberg said that was her understanding. "Most [loan] programs allow for deferment for as long as it takes to complete a graduate degree," she said.

Janice Doyle, director of enrollment services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where more than 120 entering freshmen have enrolled in the program, said she had not discouraged anyone from taking the grant.

"I am more on the fence about this program," she said. "It does have some problems, but it is putting a lot of money in students' hands."

Doyle agreed with one objection raised by Frishberg, that students who get the science and technology money must give up Maryland Educational Assistance grants -- as much as $2,600 a year for low-income students.

"This makes it more of a program to help the middle- and upper-class students, not those with low incomes," Doyle said.

David Nathaniel Bates, an 18-year-old from Berlin on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was one of the Hopkins freshmen who turned down the Science and Technology Scholarship.

"When I applied for it, I didn't know everything it entailed," Bates said. He plans to major in mechanical engineering, and he indicated he had no problem with the B average requirement, which some of his other scholarships require.

"But I want to go to grad school, not have to enter the Maryland work force," Bates said.

Vinita Takiar of Towson, who graduated this spring from Roland Park Country School, had similar reasons for turning down the Science and Technology Scholarship.

"I really don't know what I'm going to be doing four years from now," she said. "You don't know what the job market will be four years from now. There might not be any jobs."

Pub Date: 8/16/99

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