Cuts to Md. scholarship program affect 350 high school seniors

Students learn they have lost $3,000 a year in college funds

  • Lindsay Michocki is a senior at C. Milton Wright High School and received a $12,000 four-year scholarship from the state as part of the Distinguished Scholars program only to have it taken away after budget cuts.
Lindsay Michocki is a senior at C. Milton Wright High School… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
May 10, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati and Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

As a class valedictorian heavily involved in student government and drama who has taken 11 Advanced Placement classes, high school senior Lindsay Michocki was courted by some of the country's top colleges, among them Johns Hopkins, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale.

But Michocki, who is to graduate soon with a perfect grade-point average at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, turned down their offers in favor of the University of Maryland, College Park, where she thought a merit scholarship from the university coupled with a competitive state scholarship called the Distinguished Scholars award would cover nearly all of her tuition for four years.

Instead, Michocki was called to her school's guidance office Friday, where a counselor handed her a letter telling her that the Distinguished Scholars award, which provides $3,000 a year for high-achieving students who attend Maryland universities, had been canceled, a casualty of this year's state budget cuts.

"I was sitting there just thinking, 'There's nothing? I don't get anything for four years?'" Michocki said. "I was really, really upset."

The cuts will take away the annual scholarships from 350 seniors who plan to attend a Maryland college or university. Students already attending Maryland institutions and receiving the annual scholarship will not be affected. The state savings for 2012 will be about $1 million.

Graduating seniors learned of the scholarship awards, aimed at academics and fine arts, in the fall, and most had to decide where they would attend college by the end of April.

But the Maryland Higher Education Commission did not begin sending letters about the scholarship cuts until the end of last week. That meant students potentially made college decisions assuming that they could use the scholarship money to attend a Maryland university.

Ann-Marie Michocki said her daughter's deadline to accept the University of Maryland's offer was May 1, and they did not receive word of the scholarship's cancellation until May 6. Deadlines for nearly all of the other scholarships Lindsay qualifies for have passed, Ann-Marie Michocki said.

Lindsay Michocki said she might have selected another school had she not received the Distinguished Scholars award.

"I think I would have chosen a different school," she said. "I might have looked more into other schools, knowing I wasn't going to have the $3,000 I was counting on."

Officials for the Maryland Higher Education Commission said they included a disclaimer in every mailing about the scholarship that the awards were "subject to the availability of funds."

"The hope was that people would have a back-up plan," said Gareth Murray, the commission's director of legislative affairs.

The awards were cut as part of Gov. Martin O'Malley's trims — totaling about $1.35 billion — to the state's 2012 budget.

"When we're dealing with the kind of recession we've been dealing with, every program can't be protected," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley.

Students apply for the merit awards in their junior year of high school or are nominated by their schools. Applicants in the academic category must have at least a 3.7 grade-point average, and their standardized test scores are considered.

"It really is the top students," said Jennifer L. Evans, who heads the counseling department at Broadneck High School in Annapolis. Evans said counselors seek out students with grades high enough for the scholarship and encourage them to fill out an application.

"It's a great option for students that want to stay in Maryland, and it's really helped a lot of our students," Evans said. "It's a little frustrating when you encourage students to apply for a scholarship and they think they've been awarded something to kind of have it snatched away."

Elisabeth Sachs, the state's interim director of higher education, said the commission is working to suggest alternative scholarships, such as those sponsored by individual legislators.

"We're mindful of the fact that some students might have been counting on the funding," she said. "We tried to inform them as soon as possible, and we're trying to give them lists of alternatives."

A handful of parents and students have been fretting since late April on the online forum College Confidential about the scholarship's demise, about a week before official word reached the Michockis.

Evans said she has not heard from any students at Broadneck who have lost the scholarships. But she encouraged students who committed to a Maryland school to contact the financial aid office and explain their predicament and get in touch with their school counselor to pursue other grants.

Though MHEC officials have received calls and complaints about the scholarship cut, they said most people understand the situation after receiving an explanation.

"These are tough times," Sachs said. "It's unfortunate that this program was one of the victims."

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