Ehrlich wants scholarships to be need-based

Proposal would shift accent away from merit

Must get legislative approval

Md. has 5,000 students requiring financial aid

General Assembly

January 29, 2004|By Mike Bowler and Alec MacGillis | Mike Bowler and Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Bucking a national trend, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is proposing to shift millions of dollars in state financial aid money from programs based on academic ability to those based on need.

The move, which requires legislative approval, would greatly alter the balance of how financial aid is awarded. Maryland, like many other states, has in recent years put more money into merit-based scholarships in an attempt to keep talented students in the state.

Today, nearly half of the state's roughly $80 million in aid is given out primarily on the basis of ability, rather than financial need.

Ehrlich is hoping to change that. In the budget he submitted to the legislature last week, he froze applications for the popular Hope scholarships, which give up to $5,000 a year to Maryland residents who maintain a B average and promise to work in the state after graduation.

The scholarships, created by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998 on the model of a Georgia program, were initially intended to attract technology students, but later expanded to include many academic majors.

Students attending school on Hope scholarships - there are 2,500 in the most popular program, for future teachers - would keep their grants. But new scholarships are not being awarded, and the money would start to flow to need-based aid.

The shift would provide $4.2 million more in need-based aid next year, and about $16 million a year once the Hope scholarships are phased out completely. Ehrlich is also adding another $11.7 million next year to two need-based aid programs.

The move comes as the University System of Maryland has imposed tuition increases averaging 30 percent over two years. State university officials have attributed the higher charges largely to Ehrlich administration budget cuts.

`Just good policy'

James "Chip" DiPaula Jr., Ehrlich's budget secretary, said the move toward more need-based aid was "just good policy."

"The governor is very concerned that all Marylanders have access to higher education," DiPaula said. "It's crucial in this state and this economy. It's not politics. It's a holistic way of looking at higher education."

Maryland has a record 5,000 students on waiting lists for need-based financial aid, said Janice Doyle, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

"As tuition goes up, more students are going to be needy, and we need to keep pace," she said.

Doyle said that under the governor's budget, need-based aid would represent 63 percent of Maryland's scholarships next year - up from 53 percent this year. The percentage, she said, would increase as Hope is phased out.

Two of Maryland's four Hope programs have broad income limits - applicants must come from families with incomes under $95,000 - while the other two have no restrictions.

Despite its implications, the governor's shift in approach has hardly registered in Annapolis. One lawmaker who has been active in college funding issues, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, expressed surprise yesterday at the proposed shift.

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he supports increasing need-based financial aid but opposes ending the popular Hope program. Doing away with Hope grants could imperil the state's mission to persuade more of its top students to go to college here and take jobs in Maryland, he said.

"We want to make sure we keep the best and brightest in Maryland going to our universities, and the Hope scholarships helped to do that," he said.

Praise for idea

But others cheered the idea, saying the state had been giving too much money to students who didn't necessarily need help. As the reputation of the state's public universities has improved, they noted, the schools are better able to attract top students who might previously have left the state for college.

"I am very supportive of this policy direction," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "There's been a disturbing trend across the country of investing at a greater rate in merit-based scholarships at the expense of those based on need."

If the state wants to retain talented future teachers, Kirwan said, it could set up a need-based scholarship program tailored to that end. Also, colleges could still give out merit-based scholarships funded by private contributors.

"There's always room for scholarships to recognize merit, but it's a matter of balance and proportion, and in Maryland and across the country we've moved too far to only one part of the equation," he said. "This is a step that restores balance."

The scholarships handed out annually by Maryland senators and delegates aren't affected in the Ehrlich budget. Senators are scheduled to distribute $6.5 million in aid, and delegates would allocate $4.4 million. The legislative program, unique in the nation, has withstood attempts for decades to abolish it.

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