When Howard Community College nursing student Danielle LaClair discovered that her tuition payment plan had been canceled, she didn't know what to think.
As it turned out, the 28-year-old Ellicott City resident had no cause for worry.
LaClair was among more than 1,300 students at the community college to receive a county government-funded scholarship designed to make college affordable for county residents in need.
Howard Community College officials said the $2.5 million funding for the Pathway Scholarship Program is the largest one-time gift in school history, eclipsing the previous mark of $1.5 million from the Rouse Company Foundation in 2007.
School officials said $2 million be available for immediate scholarships, with half earmarked for students who have graduated high schools within the last six years. Another $500,000 will be available to the college in matching funds.
Scholarships in the program range from $600 to $1,200 each, school officials said.
For LaClair, the gift comes amid her studies in the college's accelerated nursing program. She graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a social work degree and currently works part time as a case manager, but decided to return to school to pursue an interest in nursing.
"Definitely it was a unexpected scholarship and definitely a turn of events for me," LaClair said. "It's eased a lot of my worrying. These scholarships make going back to school that much easier."
The funding comes in addition to $31 million County Executive Ken Ulman allocated for the school in the county's fiscal year 2015 operating budget. He said the scholarship funds were drawn from a surplus created from savings during the previous year.
Ulman said the funding comes as education costs are rising, and that a few hundred dollars "can be the difference between someone finishing their associate's degree or taking an extra year to do it while waiting tables at night."
"The numbers are very clear that when you finish that degree in a timely fashion, your success in life, financially and otherwise, increases dramatically," he said.
Howard Community College President Kate Hetherington said the funds can also help students looking to take classes while still in high school, as well as adult learners and those who have 45 course credits at HCC and need funding to complete degree requirements.
She said $302,200 has been awarded to 282 adult education students and $150,000 has been awarded to 150 students seeking job-related certificates.
The school is working to inform students that they've been awarded the degrees in time to enroll for fall classes. Hetherington said students will also be awarded scholarships in the spring. Some who received fall awards will be given additional funds depending on their academic performances, Hetherington said.
HCC officials said students at the school borrowed more than $8 million in federal loans in fiscal year 2013, a nearly 5 percent increase from the previous year.
"College is expensive," Hetherington said, "and at community colleges, we try to keep it affordable. But if you don't have a whole lot of money to begin with, it's really hard if you're going to take a course and pay for your books and pay for gas to get to school."
The Pathway scholarships, she said, "give relief to students and their families."