Meeting the need

February 02, 2004

COLLEGE SCHOLARSHIPS are among the best investments government can make, yet neither state nor federal aid is keeping pace with college prices, inflation and trends in family income. So Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s decision to end the Hope Scholarship program and boost to $90 million the state's purse for tuition grants based on family need is particularly timely.

The same circumstances underscore the imprudence of President Bush's proposal to earmark a portion of federal Pell Grant aid to promote a pet project - even if its educational mission is laudable.

Maybe the governor can school him on the value of making need-based aid the priority right now. It's the right thing for Maryland to do after chopping higher-education funds last year and holding them flat in the proposed 2005 budget. The university system responded by raising tuition an average 30 percent over two years, and now the least able to pay are struggling. The Maryland Higher Education Commission, which administers all state aid, has a record waiting list of 5,000 applicants.

To meet the burgeoning need, Mr. Ehrlich is justified in redirecting millions from the state's Hope Scholarships, which began in 1998 as awards for high-achieving students pursuing science and technology degrees.

Since 1998, the nation's wealthiest families have grown richer, while the average income of the neediest has declined. Federal studies show college costs today consume a much greater share of poor families' resources than they once did.

Tuition and mandatory fees for full-time undergrads at College Park were $4,805 in fall 1998; they are projected to be $7,426 for fall 2004.

Would somebody mention this to President Bush? Hearts pounded when he announced during the State of the Union address that he proposed "larger Pell Grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school."

But he left out the particulars. In the federal budget to be unveiled today, he proposes bonuses of up to $1,000 each for the minuscule slice of the Pell Grant-eligible population that signs on to the State Scholars program. To earn the bonus, the teens would complete a slate of courses that in some cases is more demanding than their states' own graduation requirements: It includes four years of English; three years of lab science; three years of math; and two years of a foreign language. Maryland is one of the 12 participating states: Harford and Frederick are the pilot counties.

Impressive it may be, but rewards should come from some other pot.

Turning $33 million of the $12 billion federal investment in Pell Grants into achievement-based awards strays from the program's intent and tradition of helping students based on family need. Though it has grown to serve roughly 5 million students, it has been covering a declining share of their college tab. The elder President Bush made a similar proposal in 1992; Congress didn't fund it. A revised attempt in 1998 met the same fate, as should this one.

It would be better to propose substantial increases in the Pell Grant allocation and the size of students' awards for 2005.

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