Wanted: Maryland students who need money

State has millions in scholarships for those in such understaffed fields as nursing, teaching

May 30, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

But for the Maryland Higher Education Commission — It's a problem most government agencies wouldn't mind having: millions of tax dollars to spend, and not enough places to spend them.

But for the Maryland Higher Education Commission - the agency that administers state-funded college scholarship programs - the looming threat of getting stuck this year with millions of dollars in undistributed student grants could threaten future financial aid funding, officials say.

That's why the commission is anxious to get the word out about $4 million in scholarships available to Maryland residents committed to training for careers in critically understaffed areas such as teaching, nursing and child care.

The application deadline for the awards - which range from $1,000 to $4,000 per year - is Friday.

Commission officials say they'll need to have about 2,000 applications in by that day in order to spend all the money allocated this session by the governor and legislature.

But as of last count, only 365 applications were in, according to Helen Szablya, the commission's director of communication. Even if all of those applications met the eligibility requirements - typically, only about 75 percent do - and all applicants received the maximum award amount, there would still be more than $2.5 million left over.

"There is always the danger that if one does not use up all the money ... then the assumption is that you don't need it," Szablya said. "But we know there is a need out there."

The $4 million Workforce Shortage Student Assistance Grant Program provides scholarships to Maryland residents studying at state colleges for careers in fields designated by the state as having "critical work force shortages."

Among these careers are nursing, teaching and occupational therapy.

The scholarships come with strings attached: For every year students are funded, they must commit to one year working in their field, in Maryland. Otherwise, they have to pay the money back to the state.

Once all the applications are in, grants are awarded based on consideration of grade-point average and financial need. There is no maximum income cutoff, though all applicants must also file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Qualified community college students usually get $2,000 a year; students at four-year institutions typically get $4,000 a year.

Such programs have been used in Maryland since the early 1990s, and there has rarely been a problem finding qualified applicants, Szablya said.

The $4 million figure is the same amount the commission successfully granted to eligible students last year, for similar state scholarships.

"Last year, we were oversubscribed," Szablya said.

The problem this year is that instead of having separate scholarship programs for each of seven career tracks, the state has for the first time consolidated the career-based grants into one program.

That was done to increase administrative efficiencies and reduce overhead, but it has also created a name-recognition problem for the consolidated program, Szablya said.

And an unwieldy name.

"Maybe we need to rethink what we call the grant," said Szablya, who is in charge of marketing the program to financial aid officials at that state's public and private colleges.

The financial aid director at Towson University, Vince Pecora, said the consolidation of various career-based scholarships was "long overdue," but predicted it would take some time for aid officers like himself and his staff to get used to the new system.

Such scholarships are popular at Towson, Pecora said. There are currently 53 students in the nursing program whose participation in the program makes it far more likely they will practice nursing in the state.

Szablya said the commission should have expended more effort promoting the scholarship, but said she's hopeful that student applicants will begin to flood her agency as the deadline approaches.

"But we really need to have a serious influx to hit that point," she said.

Applications for the Workforce Shortage Student Assistance Grant Program can be downloaded at the Maryland Higher Education Commission's Web site: http:--mhec.state.md.us

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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