'60 Minutes' piece inspired new state scholarship program


Inspired by a "60 Minutes" segment on a Mississippi millionaire who gives college educations to poor students, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has approved a new scholarship program called the Free State.

The program will use state funds to provide up to $3,000 annually in college scholarships to low-income and middle-income high school students if they enroll in and pass college prep courses beginning in the eighth grade. This represents an attempt to get students involved in college prep courses a year before high school.

However, the recession-wary commission amended the $24 million plan to include an alternate distribution formula that would assure equitable scholarships if the Free State plan cannot be fully funded.

The plan must be converted into legislation and will be presented to the General Assembly in the next session, said Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery.

"I don't think this commission will ever propose something as important as Free State," said Commissioner Willard Hackerman. "It's a landmark for the state of Maryland."

The vote was preceded by a videotape replay of a "60 Minutes" profile of Patrick Taylor, a wealthy oilman who "adopted" a group of inner city Louisiana teen-agers and promised to pay for their college education if they maintained a "B" average. The 20-minute segment seemed to inspire the commission, which approved the Free State plan this week with little comment.

The new scholarship package would take five years to phase in if state funding is approved. It would cost an additional $14 million by the final year, Aery said.

The plan also includes scholarship funds for part-time students, a first in the state.

But it does not address the fate of the legislative scholarship program, which has been heavily criticized for allowing state senators and delegates to give scholarships to constituents often based on political support rather than need.

Aery said that in 1996, the final year of the phase-in of the Free State plan, the legislative scholarship program would cost $8 million, money that could be spent on low-income and middle-income scholarships under the Free State plan.

The legislature will decide the fate of both scholarship programs.

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