Regents' plan aims to keep top students in Md.

More merit awards, better marketing of state schools likely in 'Project 1300'

October 18, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

Alarmed that most of Maryland's top high school students are going out of state for college - and possibly not coming back - the Board of Regents announced yesterday an initiative, dubbed "Project 1300," to keep the brightest students closer to home.

About 6,000 high school seniors in Maryland score 1,300 or better on their SAT each year, and two-thirds of them leave the state for college, according to Regent David Nevins. He's worried that students won't return to Maryland and put their talents to use here.

"If we're suffering a significant brain drain, it's important that we do what we can to reverse that, for the health of the economy 10, 20, 30 years down the road," Nevins said. He said more merit scholarships for top students and better marketing of universities might stem the flow. The regents will study the issue and release a report with proposed solutions in the next six months.

The higher a student's SAT score, the less likely it is that that student will remain in Maryland, the data show. Just 27 percent of Maryland Distinguished Scholar program finalists, who have an average SAT score of 1,500, stayed in-state in 2004, the latest year for which a breakdown is available. The most popular out-of-state colleges for these students were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

"Kids who grew up in Baltimore and have choices, they don't want to go to school where they grew up," said Carl Ahlgren, director of college counseling at the Gilman School. "It's part of the dynamic of being a teenager with some intellectual gifts."

Maryland is partly a victim of its geography, Ahlgren said - a small state tucked into the Mid-Atlantic, near other states that brim with good colleges. And being next to Virginia, with its stable of internationally recognized state universities such as the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary and Virginia Tech doesn't help.

"The quality of Maryland's public institutions is a relatively recent thing," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state university system. "We don't have the long heritage. We probably do need to do a better job letting the best students know of the excellence of our institutions."

He said the regents will likely also ask the governor and state legislature to create new merit scholarship programs. And the regents want to bring private universities in the state, including the Johns Hopkins University and Loyola College in Maryland, into the discussion on retaining students.

The regents will also study the practices of states with the most success at holding onto top students. Those states, such as Michigan, Virginia and California, manage to retain about two-thirds of them.

Maryland has made attempts to hang onto high achievers, establishing various scholarships including, in 1998, the Hope Scholarship program for top students interested in science and technology. But the Hope program was scrapped in 2004 by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who moved the money into need-based financial aid.

Yesterday, regents said that while need-based aid is critical, they must also focus on merit. The state's Distinguished Scholar program awards $3,000 to National Merit finalists who go to any Maryland college, public or private, and to students who show talent in the arts. More such programs are needed, they suggested.

"We invest all these resources in K-12 schools," said Orlan M. Johnson, vice chairman of the board of regents, "and then right at the point when we will start to see a return on this investment, we watch it go out of state."

The regents also worry that as the wealthiest universities begin to use more of their endowments on financial aid for middle-income families, it could become cheaper for a student to attend, say, Harvard than the University of Maryland, College Park. About 20 universities, including Harvard, have gone to "no-loan" financial aid and give generous grants.

"You can't even make the financial argument anymore for the state flagship institution" for middle-income students, said Gilman's Ahlgren. "Those students don't have a reason to say, 'I'll go to College Park and save my parents some money.'"

But, as the economy worsens, students who can't get into the wealthiest private universities may find that state schools become more attractive. Already, enrollment at state universities in Maryland this fall is up by 5,800 students, or 4 percent, over last year.

"We are already seeing some of our top students really consider the honors program at College Park," said Kathy Mathias, director of college counseling at Loyola High School. She said that in recent years both College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County have gained appeal as their reputations and academics have improved.

Kirwan said that Project 1300 will aim to draw achievers not just to the state's flagship university but also to the nearly dozen other state colleges.

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