MARYLAND'S college financial aid programs, involving $21 million in scholarships, have been rightly characterized as ineffective and unjust. But the state's current fiscal situation dampens any effort to provide additional aid. So why not at least ensure that those scholarships that are available are used in the most efficient way by shifting more funds to students truly in need? Apparently Gov. William Donald Schaefer plans to make just this suggestion to the general assembly. The effort could not come at a better time.

Currently, the programs give too much to students without demonstrated financial need. Under Gov. Schaefer's plan, as spelled out by Maryland Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery, the state's main scholarship program would be phased out and replaced by a new program that would allocate more to minorities and economically disadvantaged students who are underrepresented on Maryland campuses. Less would go to students attending more expensive private colleges.

The goal would be to give the poorest students enough scholarship aid, in grants, to attend a public college or university without having to take out a loan. The state's budget problems prevent Gov. Schaefer from seeking additional money for at least a year. But the process of shifting to "need-based" aid programs could begin now.

There is also a rather sizable pool of scholarship money that could be used more effectively. We refer here to the system of legislative scholarships in which state senators and delegates hand out $6 million in aid directly to their constituents. Maryland is the only state in the nation that maintains this archaic practice.

These scholarships would be less wasteful if they were handed out in reasonable sums to deserving students. But under a kind of patronage system that exists, they continue to be doled out in amounts so small as to be meaningless. The times demand greater responsibility in the use of state funds, and that must also apply to state scholarship money. The General Assembly should approve the shift in aid to the truly needy and apply the legislative scholarship money to the same end.