Changing courses in mid-semester when funds dry up

With students forced to leave, Morgan says it needs scholarships

March 13, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Shannon Parker got the word a couple of weeks ago - her "schedule had been dropped."

That's an ominous phrase at Morgan State University heard by about 300 or 400 of the school's 6,000 undergraduates a few weeks into each semester. It means there's no money to pay their bills, and they have to go home.

For Morgan State officials, it is heartbreaking evidence that they should have more need-based scholarship money that would be controlled by the campus to take care of such situations.

For Parker, the word came when, after five years of loans and part-time jobs, she was three credits - one course - from graduating with a degree in psychology.

"I started out the semester thinking that my financial aid was taken care of," says Parker, 24. "But they told me just before midterms that they were returning all my [loan] money because you have to have six credits to qualify for financial aid and I was only taking three."

Morgan State officials say there are as many reasons for financial woes as there are students whose schedules are dropped - from missed filing deadlines to misunderstanding that a $500 scholarship from a church group was a one-time gift, not an annual grant.

But Morgan officials make no apologies for letting their students start the semester even if they are on shaky financial ground.

By contrast, most state campuses turn away students who do not have their finances in place, but many at Morgan are allowed to start school each semester not knowing if their bills can be paid.

"Our goal is to get a college education to as many people as possible," says Joseph Bozeman Jr., executive director of enrollment services. "We hope we can work something out."

Morgan State President Earl S. Richardson notes his own experience attending the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He says it was two weeks into the semester when he decided that going to college was better than another season working the fields.

Although he showed up late with no apparent way to pay his $75 bill - his parents later took out a loan - he was welcomed into what became his first step toward a doctorate. He attempts to foster a similar atmosphere at Morgan State.

"We don't really let them in," Richardson says of some of the Morgan State students who can't pay their bills. "They show up and fill out a schedule and start going to classes while they see if they can pay for it. Then we tap into every source we have, but sometimes we have to decide that the money's not there.

"That's when it's heartbreaking because many of these students could successfully negotiate the educational system if they had the money."

Finding the money is the job of Morgan State financial aid head Reginald Cureton, who agrees that the financial aid picture at the beginning of each semester is fluid enough to warrant letting these students start classes.

"Maybe we can find some money from someone who did not come back to school for other reasons," he says. "Maybe they can find some from relatives. We want as many of them here as possible."

Officials at the historically black school say their students are not only more likely to have financial needs - more than 80 percent of Morgan students get some type of aid - but are also more likely to be one of the first in their families to go to college and to come out of high schools that don't emphasize college preparation.

For them, the world of financial aid is often complex and foreign - meaning, for example, they are more likely to miss crucial deadlines for submitting aid applications.

Many depend on Pell Grants, the federal program for low-income families. These are up to a maximum of about $3,400, while Morgan tuition and fees for in-state students total $4,388 ($10,358 for out-of-state students). Studies show that Pell Grants have not kept up with the inflation of higher education costs, resulting in a growing reliance on loans.

But many Morgan students are loathe to burden financially strapped families with loans, officials says.

"They often don't even want to ask their families for more money," Cureton says. "The federal formula might say the family can afford more, but the student knows what the real situation is back home."

Jordan C. Bennett, 21, is a senior at Morgan State and on his way to graduating on time. But he went through the ordeal of having his schedule dropped at the beginning of his sophomore year.

"I just didn't understand how that could happen," Bennett says, amazed that anyone who showed the desire and ability to go to college would be told they couldn't attend. "You're told you possibly have to stay home for a semester. It was very disheartening to me."

Bennett was able to find a loan to get back in his sophomore year. He says he's seen other students have their schedules dropped and leave with the intention of returning but never make it back.

"These are people who would excel if given a chance," he says. "The problem is that if they don't find the money for one semester, it takes away their dream and crushes them."

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