UM plans to replace loans to needy with grants

April 13, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Joining a growing movement to bolster low-income college students, the University of Maryland, College Park announced an initiative yesterday to guarantee that needy students graduate from college debt-free.

The initiative, dubbed "Maryland Pathways," is intended to protect poor students from the high tuition increases of the past two years - a combined 35 percent at College Park.

Under the $1.6 million-a-year plan, about 500 low-income students per class - 12 percent of the student body - would receive grants from the university or the state instead of the subsidized loans they currently take out as part of their financial-aid package. Maryland-resident students at the university graduate with, on average, $17,000 in debt, officials say.

"The [debt] problem is getting worse, not better, and it affects the lowest-income people the most," said UM President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr.

The initiative follows in the steps of several other universities that have decided to spend more on grants for low-income students in response to concerns about the low numbers of poor students of all races at the nation's best colleges. Last fall, the University of North Carolina announced the "Carolina Covenant," a $2.2 million plan to guarantee a debt-free education to poor students who work 10-12 hours per week on campus.

And in February, the University of Virginia announced "Access UVa," a $16.4 million plan to limit the amount of loans that low- and middle-income students can take out.

UM's plan is more limited in scope than Virginia's and is based in part on aid programs already available to students. It targets two groups. One consists of about 200 students per class from families with incomes below the poverty level (about $21,000 a year for a family of four) who thereby qualify for a $4,000 federal Pell grant.

Today, such students can receive, in addition to Pell Grant money, state "Guaranteed Access" grants of about $10,000 per year. The remaining $4,000 of the total cost of tuition and fees, room and board and textbooks (about $18,000 a year at UM) is typically covered by work-study jobs and loans.

The standard work-study job provides about $1,500 a year. Under the initiative, the university will give the typical low-income student a grant to cover the remaining $2,500 gap, so no loans are necessary.

In addition, UM officials said, the initiative will include redoubled efforts to make sure students apply for the state grants, which some qualified students fail to obtain for themselves.

While financial aid officers have tried to alert students to the $7 million state program, the initiative's emphasis on have students graduate debt-free will ensure the state money doesn't go unused, officials said.

"We're going to be proactive ... to encourage participation," said William McLean, the associate provost in charge of the plan.

The second group of targeted students are the 300 or so per class whose families are poor enough to qualify for Pell funding but who lose their qualification because the students' own part-time earnings put them over the limit. The University of Maryland will substitute grants for the lost Pell money.

The initiative aims to keep poor students from accruing debt and convince needy high school graduates that they can afford college, Mote said.

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