The state Senate has approved a $24 million plan to replace the state's college scholarship program with awards geared toward students from low- and middle-income families.
The Educational Excellence Awards bill, approved by a 45-0 vote yesterday, includes a college prep program that would start targeting youngsters in junior high school.
Overall, the proposal would help about 15,000 students attend college in the state, said Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery.
The scholarship plan, originally called "Free State" and recommended by the Maryland Higher Education Commission last fall, would more than double the $11.6 million currently offered to needy students.
"It's a dramatic restructuring of the way scholarships are awarded in Maryland," said David S. Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer.
"It really helps the poorer students," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-City.
The bill would set up a new program to help Maryland's neediest students receive an education by paying the full cost of tuition. Low- to moderate-income students would receive grants of up to $3,000.
The bill now goes to the House of Delegates, where similar legislation is pending.
The scholarship plan would take five years to implement and would not eliminate the state's legislative scholarship program, which provides scholarship money that General Assembly members dispense at their pleasure.
However, any legislative scholarship funds not awarded at the end of a year would be transferred to the new the Educational Excellence fund.
Aery said the plan has been in the works for 18 months. Details were hashed out during lengthy public hearings before the commission and legislature.
"It is probably one of the most substantial financial-aid bills in the country," Aery said. "It I accomplish nothing else as secretary, this is a major form of legislation for people."
A principal element of the plan is to identify students with college potential as early as the sixth, seventh or eighth grades and promise them state financial assistance upon graduation from high school.
Students promised scholarships would have to sign a "drug-free" pledge, complete a college-preparation curriculum in high school and seek admission to any public or private college in Maryland.
Scholarships awarded under the Educational Excellence program would be driven by a student's financial need. While the existing general scholarship program considers financial need, it also must spread the scholarships evenly by legislative district and must consider national test scores of recipients.