Scholarship fate hurts some, aids others

Plan to end Hope grants shifts funding to neediest

January 31, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

As Maryland finds itself on the verge of doing away with the popular Hope scholarships, Colin McGuigan just wants to make one thing clear: if it weren't for his Hope grant, he probably wouldn't be here.

McGuigan, a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was considering transferring to a college in Virginia or Pennsylvania after his freshman year when he won a $3,000 Hope scholarship, an award designed to keep top students from leaving the state.

Looking back, he is grateful that the Hope grant persuaded him to stay at UMBC, where he is now happy. And not surprisingly, he is skeptical of the state's new plan to shift the money for the Hope grants, which are awarded primarily for academic merit, into need-based financial aid.

"When I got the Hope, that made the decision for me. That's why I'm still in the state," said the 20-year-old history major from Frederick, who also has a $5,000 scholarship from UMBC.

In the budget he submitted last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. froze new applications for the $16 million Hope scholarship program, instructing officials to invest the money in need-based financial aid.

The scholarships, created in 1998 by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, were intended to recruit technology workers and teachers, but later expanded to other majors. The awards are worth up to $5,000 a year -- covering up to 80 percent of in-state tuition at public colleges -- and require students to maintain a 3.0 GPA and work one year in Maryland for each year they receive money.

Ehrlich's move, which requires legislative approval, has won attention inside and outside Maryland because it occurs as many states are adopting merit-based aid programs, not eliminating them. Ehrlich's office argues that at a time of skyrocketing tuition, the state should help students who need aid the most.

The shift will not affect the roughly 4,100 current Hope recipients, who will receive the money until they graduate. But it will affect -- for better and worse -- thousands of current and future students, college financial aid directors say.

Reaction to the shift is divided. On one side are students like McGuigan, a student with a 4.0 grade-point average from a middle-class background. Though he'll continue receiving Hope money, he opposes the change.

"I can sympathize with reserving some aid for those who need it, but ..." McGuigan trailed off. "I know plenty of bright students, and one of the primary reasons for their staying in the state is [merit-based] aid."

On the other side are people like Brenda Fernandez. The 44-year-old mother of two has for two years applied for need-based financial aid so she could attend the University of Baltimore, where she wants to get a bachelor's degree in business, building on the associate's degree she received at Baltimore City Community College.

But both times, the Woodlawn resident said, she was denied state aid by officials who, with a limited amount of money to give out, told her she wasn't needy enough to qualify and placed her on a waiting list of 5,000 applicants. Fernandez receives a $1,500 monthly disability payment (she was in a car accident two years ago) and her husband earns $30,000 a year. Tuition at UB is $4,613 a year.

Fernandez praised Ehrlich's move, saying more money for need-based programs could allow more people like her to attend college.

"It's great. This way, you get a better mixture, you don't just have `haves' getting the money," she said. "It'll balance it out a little more and give more people a shot at making something of themselves."

Reaction is also split among financial aid directors. Some support the shift, saying need should take precedence over academic merit at a time when tuition is rising so fast.

"It's really smart to try to keep the best and brightest in the state, but it's a balancing act, and if push comes to shove you want to help the neediest," said Sarah Bauder, associate director of financial aid at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Others say the state should alter Hope, not do away with it. Vince Pecora, financial aid director at Towson University, said the state should keep the grants for future teachers but require that recipients teach in high-demand areas. The state should also add an income ceiling for all Hope scholarships (some awards require families to make less than $95,000 a year) and raise the required GPA so aid goes to the most deserving students, he said.

Defending Ehrlich's move, officials overseeing the state's financial aid point out that help is available for middle-class families. And, they say, there are other scholarships and loan-forgiveness programs for future teachers outside of Hope.

That is little solace to Erin Clark, a junior special-education major at the University of Maryland who is dismayed by the Hope decision. Although she will continue to receive her $5,000 grant, the 19-year-old from Rockville is worried that fewer students will choose to teach in Maryland without the Hope incentive.

Students who are "committed to education are going to go ahead and do it," she said, "but for those who want financial security, this is going to make them choose another path."

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