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Quelling fears on financial aid


THERE WAS some panic in the land last week when news came out that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wanted to shift millions of dollars in college scholarships from programs based on academic ability to those based on financial need.

A Harford County mother, for example, called a radio talk show. Her son, she said, is an honors student, a senior at Fallston High School with his heart set on attending the University of Maryland. But the threat that merit-based financial aid might dry up if Ehrlich has his way prompted the family to look at out-of-state schools.

Good riddance to Maryland, the mother said. Her son and middle-class kids like him who "work hard" to keep up their grades would deprive their home state of their intellectual capital.

But the mother was unnecessarily alarmed. Whether or not the General Assembly approves the governor's financial aid budget, her son stands an excellent chance of earning a generous scholarship to the University of Maryland or another top-flight public or private college in Maryland.

The mother had subscribed to one of a number of myths surrounding college financial aid. Here are a few of them, plus a warning:

Ehrlich plans to eliminate all scholarship programs based on merit.

Wrong. No governor would suggest such a thing. Even if Ehrlich shifts money from the popular merit-based Hope scholarships, $33 million in merit-based scholarships would remain in next year's state aid budget. Money is available from a dozen merit- and career-based programs. There's the Sharon Christa McAuliffe Memorial Award for would-be teachers. Some $11 million will be doled out by senators and delegates, who are not bound to consider financial need. And for the Fallston all-star, there's the $3,000-a-year Distinguished Scholar Award for high-ability students.

The public universities in Maryland don't distribute much merit aid.

Really wrong. The publics are desperate to attract high-ability students, and a few of them -- College Park, UMBC, St. Mary's -- have been doing a splendid job of it. They've established honors colleges that amount to private schools within public universities. Here's a telling statistic: In the 2001-2002 school year, schools of the University System of Maryland gave out nearly $29 million of their money in academic scholarships. That's more than half the worth of high-ability scholarships distributed by Maryland private colleges ($51.9 million).

And many of those private colleges are generous to brains. Washington College in Chestertown, for example, awards scholarships ranging from $10,000 to $13,500 a year to students who were members of the National Honor Society in high school.

Athletic scholarships are a type of merit aid. In the 2002 school year, all schools in the university system gave $12.3 million of their and other people's money to athletes -- but three times that amount ($39.5 million) to students of high academic ability.

You have to be poor to get need-based aid.

Wrong again. Janice Doyle, assistant secretary at the Maryland Higher Education Commission (who provided the statistics in this column), says there are a "significant number of middle-income students" in the state's major need-based scholarship program, known as the Educational Assistance Grant. "There are even people with family incomes over $100,000," she says.

How could this be? Doyle explains that it's because scholarship applicants aren't ranked by income, but by a measure called EFC -- expected family contribution. EFC takes into account family size, income and the number of kids in college. So a student from a large family with a low six-figure income and two or three siblings in college could easily qualify for an assistance grant, even to attend the super-expensive Johns Hopkins University.

Which brings us to FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It's FAFSA season; the deadline for submitting the form is March 1, and even some of the merit-based state scholarship programs -- the Maryland senatorial grants, for example -- require a FAFSA.

Filling out FAFSA is fairly easy and can be done for free at www.fafsa.ed.gov. A week from today, Feb. 8, is College Goal Sunday, at which financial aid counselors will help students fill out the form at 14 locations in Maryland, Delaware and the District. Call 866-GO2GOAL or visit www.GO2GOAL.org.

The warning: Don't be charged as much as $79 for completing FAFSA at fafsa.com or any other Web site taking advantage of naive students. The "Free" in FAFSA means what it says.

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