An F in scholarship

Our view: Maryland makes some poor decisions on college financial aid, some correctable, some seemingly not

May 11, 2011

Put yourself in the shoes of honor student Lindsay Michocki, the C. Milton Wright High School senior who found out she lost a $3,000 scholarship last week. That was just four days after committing herself to the University of Maryland in order that she might take advantage of that state-funded financial assistance.

The initial response from officials at the Maryland Higher Education Commission to Sun reporters Yeganeh June Torbati and Childs Walker? The scholarship comes with a disclaimer that it's contingent on funds being available and, because of a reduction to next year's state budget, they are not.

It doesn't take a scholar to recognize a load of hooey. Yes, the state's Distinguished Scholar program was reduced by $1.1 million this year as part of a four-year phase-out of the merit-based scholarship. Given the state's difficult budget posture of recent years, that modest reduction (less than 1 percent in the state's overall $103 million scholarship programs) was reasonable — and preferable to reducing need-based assistance. Historically, those who receive merit-based scholarships from the state are too well-off to qualify for need-based aid.

The real problem is that budget reduction, as proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, was known to the Maryland Higher Education Commission in January at the latest. By February, applicants should have been alerted that Fiscal 2012 funding had been eliminated, not in May. It's not as if the General Assembly had the authority to restore funding after the governor's chose to leave it out of his proposed budget.

Ms. Michocki and her family have good reason to be upset with the state's failure to notify them in a timely fashion. And Mr. O'Malley's subsequent decision — announced this afternoon — to restore funding to the Distinguished Scholar program this year is entirely appropriate given the difficult circumstances she and many other high school seniors who might have been counting on that money were in.

Essentially, that means MHEC is guilty of a $4.4 million bureaucratic bungle, as that's what it will cost for the high school seniors to be eligible for aid over their four-year undergraduate term.

Critics who see any reduction in scholarship aid as an outrage given Mr. O'Malley's wholly unrelated decision Tuesday to sign the legislation granting illegal immigrants who attended Maryland high schools the right to in-state tuition rates are off-base.

Merit-based aid was going to be cut one way or the other. And the immigrant bill merely extends the tuition break to all state taxpayers (and in the case of the undocumented, initially applies only to community college).

The far better (and more costly) example of hypocrisy is that Mr. O'Malley and lawmakers chose to leave untouched the legislative scholarship program wherein delegates and senators can give financial aid to anyone they please. That's an $11.7 million annual drain on the state budget that was actually allowed to grow $200,000 next year.

Lawmakers may claim they only give aid to those who deserve it, but investigations by this newspaper and others in the past have found that's not always so. At times, they are used as little more than political payoffs to friends and allies. Maryland is one of only five states that offer legislative scholarships, and it's a disgrace, particularly in these difficult economic times.

Meanwhile, if the governor is in the mood to increase scholarships, let his next priority be to boost assistance to those who can't afford to go to college. Maryland's need-based financial aid program is funded next year at the Fiscal 2009 level of $76 million despite a 3.3 percent increase in in-state tuition and mandatory fees this year and another 3 percent increase expected next year.

Eliminating the legislative scholarship program might have done the trick, but alas, nobody had the political courage to do so — aside from Republican lawmakers whose entirely sensible suggestion for a cut was ignored by the Democratic majority.

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