Student aid in Md. called cumbersome

Scholarship programs should be consolidated into 5 plans, study says

`We need to make changes'

Report also suggests spending more for need-base awards

September 17, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Maryland's $81.8 million college scholarship programs are a confusing hodgepodge that needs streamlining, plus additional resources to help students keep up with the soaring costs of schooling, according to an independent investigation.

The study, ordered by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, calls for consolidation of 24 student aid programs into five broad categories, each with uniform deadlines and regulations.

Some of the programs run by the State Scholarship Administration would be more efficiently operated at the campus level, said researchers at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington think tank that conducted the study.

"The people who need us most say our financial aid programs and deadlines are cumbersome and difficult to understand," said Karen R. Johnson, state secretary of higher education. "It's clear that we need to make changes, and now we have a place to start."

After a year on the job, Johnson said she is still confused by the state's many programs, each with its own set of regulations.

"I still have trouble understanding it all, so I can sympathize with students and their parents," she said.

The report also recommends that Maryland should add significantly to the $45 million it spends yearly on need-based scholarships for students attending the state's 29 public two- and four-year colleges, 24 private institutions and more than 120 career schools.

Tuition at Maryland's public four-year colleges increased by 88 percent during the 1990s, four times the national inflationary rate. Last year, the average tuition and fees charged by those schools - nearly $5,000 - was seventh-highest among the states and the District of Columbia, while Maryland was 18th in the amount of state financial aid it disburses based on need.

"Maryland's commitment to need-based aid will continue to be tested as long as tuition keeps rising every year," the report authors say.

Yearly tuition alone ranges from $2,727 at Coppin State College in Baltimore to $6,474 at St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland.

"One of our frustrations is that every year we have people on waiting lists that we're not able to fund," said Janice Doyle, assistant state higher education secretary for finance policy.

The two dozen programs include nearly $19 million in HOPE scholarships aimed at addressing the state's growing need for teachers, but also a variety of aid funds designated for child care providers, firefighters and even $20,000 for physical and occupational therapists.

More than $9 million in scholarships is given out annually by state senators and delegates in a program, unique in the nation, that has withstood attempts to abolish it for decades. The report recommends scrapping legislative scholarships, saying that "individual financial aid awards should not be based on political influence or affiliation."

But given legislators' previous unwillingness to give up this perk, the researchers concede that "the likelihood of eliminating these scholarships may be slim."

The report recommends consolidating existing programs into five categories: those based on need; those based on academic merit; grants given in return for a commitment to work in Maryland, such as the new HOPE Scholarship program for teachers; funds for "unique populations" such as those attending trade schools; and - if they are not to be eliminated - legislative scholarships.

"Consolidating programs is the most pressing problem that Maryland can do something about," said David Rhodes, one of the authors of the report. "That's why we listed it first."

Among other recommendations:

Maryland should refrain from creating any new, centrally administrated scholarship programs.

To help students make their college choice, grants need to be offered earlier, so the state should guarantee funding of all its scholarship programs more consistently from year to year.

The state needs to modernize its technology, and conduct more of its financial-aid business on the Internet.

The state should establish graduate and professional scholarships at historically black colleges and universities. This was one of the proposals in an agreement worked out last year between Maryland and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

The scholarship administration, a formerly independent state agency now a part of the higher education commission, needs to polish its image, increase its visibility and expand its "outreach." Changing its name, perhaps to the State Office of Student Financial Assistance, might help.

Higher education officials generally praised the report, although some warned that decentralizing aid programs might spark conflict among campuses and sectors.

"But decentralizing might be better for students, and they're the ones we should be worrying about," said Vince Pecora, who heads financial aid programs at Towson University.

Elizabeth Garraway, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, said schools in her organization are poised to accommodate an expected surge in enrollment in Maryland higher education.

"We're especially anxious that need-based aid be emphasized, and we're concerned that the methodology for distributing aid funds be a fair one," Garraway said.

Johnson said she wasn't sure which recommendations would be submitted to the General Assembly, "but some things clearly don't require legislative action." She scheduled a public hearing for Sept. 26 in Annapolis, beginning at 1 p.m. in the Joint Hearing Room at the Department of Legislative Services, 90 State Circle.

The scholarship report can be read on the commission's Web site: www.mhec.state.md.us.

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