In its first year, Maryland's vaunted new scholarship program for science and technology majors--promoted as a way to beef up the state's high-tech work force--has attracted surprisingly few takers.
Lawmakers budgeted funds on the assumption that 2,500 college students would qualify for the grants, but fewer than 800 ended up accepting them. Educators believe many students may have been unaware of the new program or were scared off by its stringent requirements, which include a promise to work in Maryland after graduation.
Yet the program's shortfall has been an unexpected blessing for another new scholarship, freeing up funds to award several hundred more grants to aspiring teachers than originally planned.
About 800 education students received the scholarship this fall, which will require them to teach at least one year in Maryland public schools.
"It's going to be a significant encouragement for people to consider teaching as a career," said Mike Morrill, spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who championed both scholarship programs.
Morrill said that despite the initial lack of interest in the science scholarships, the governor plans to expand the program next year. "These are the fields the employers are telling us they need people graduating in," he said.
Glendening, who often speaks of how his path to a doctorate was paved almost entirely by scholarships, pushed hard for both programs, which he billed as a way to make college more affordable for the middle class and to respond to dire shortages of qualified teachers and skilled high-tech workers.
Both programs are precursors to his even more ambitious "Hope Scholarship" program, scheduled to start next fall. Within a few years, the program will give $3,000 grants to middle-class high school seniors who maintain a "B" average at any Maryland college, regardless of career path.
After the Hope program failed to win legislative approval two years ago, Glendening came back with the smaller Science and Technology Scholarship program, offering $3,000 a year for a four-year diploma program and $1,000 for a community college education. The General Assembly approved the science and technology program last year and set the state on a schedule to start awarding the first $5.1 million in scholarships in summer 1999.
This year, the governor sought immediate funding of a new teacher scholarship. Although state lawmakers approved it, they refused to award the full $6 million this year, saying there wasn't enough time to get the program up and running.
Instead, lawmakers offered $1.5 million to fund a first round of scholarships for 500 senior or graduate education students, who they hoped would start filling vacancies in Maryland classrooms as early as next fall.
Yet it didn't turn out as state officials planned.
The Maryland Higher Education Commission, which administers the scholarships, received only 1,755 applications for the science and technology grants. And of the more than 1,100 students who qualified, more than 300 declined the awards.
Karen Price, director of the state scholarship administration, blames the newness of the program.
"It does take a while for students to get the word, especially when there are grade-point average requirements. Students need a while to work toward those goals," she said.
William Leith, director of financial aid at the University of Maryland at College Park, said many students simply hadn't heard of the program. Nearly half of the science scholarship winners are attending College Park this fall.
Yet the biggest drawback may have been the fact that scholarship recipients have to pay the money back--with interest--if they don't fulfill the grant's requirements, such as maintaining a "B" or going to work in Maryland in the tech field.
Many freshman aren't yet willing to commit to a tech major, let alone a career path, college officials noted. The scholarship doesn't even cover all science majors this year--just engineering, computer science and information technology--though the start of the Hope scholarship next year will expand to include such fields as physics, biology and mathematics.
"Lots of people come to college and fall in love with a different discipline and change their minds at least once if not more," said Dennis O'Shea, spokesman for Johns Hopkins University.
Johns Hopkins officials this year sent a letter to incoming students warning them that they might be better off getting loans rather than accepting the Science and Technology Scholarship. If their grades dropped below "B," they warned, state law would require students to pay back the grant with an interest rate of the prime rate plus 2 percent--currently an amount close to 10 percent. The federal student loan rate is only about 7 percent.
Price said that state officials are seeking to amend the scholarship program so that the payback interest rate is no greater than the federal student loan rate.
Craig Weidemann, executive assistant to the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, noted that it is still hard for students to make that commitment, especially in a field as "volatile" as technology.
What, for example, if a scholarship student dutifully goes to work in a Maryland-based technology firm after graduation--only to be transferred to Virginia, or Australia?
Still, officials said they expect more students to line up for the science scholarships next year as word of the program gets around. After spending only $2.7 million on the scholarships this year, Morrill said the governor will budget $6 million for the coming year, both to continue funding this year's recipients and to usher in a new, slightly larger class.
Meanwhile, state officials had no trouble finding more than enough qualified education students to take their scholarships--but originally, only 500 were available.
The lack of interest in the science and technology grants allowed Maryland to shift $500,000 to the teacher scholarships, which helped fund an additional 300 grants.
Morrill acknowledged that many of those aspiring teachers probably already planned to work in Maryland, even without the scholarship. But the governor plans to budget $8 million next year for more teacher grants to stir interest among students not yet on that career path.
"We hope to drive some of those numbers up, and we will attract people who would not otherwise be teaching in Maryland," Morrill said.