Ohio scholarships feeling pinch of budget cuts

Kassandra Coffman stood at her high school graduation ceremony a year ago and was handed a certificate by the then-speaker of the Ohio House congratulating her for earning a state academic scholarship.

But just one year into her chemical engineering studies at the University of Toledo, the merit-based Ohio Academic Scholarship Program that provided her with $2,200 last year is on the chopping block.

"It was my understanding that as long as I kept my [grade-point average] up and performed academically, it would be there," the 18-year-old Mansfield resident said.

"I understand what’s going on with the economy and that cutbacks have to be made somewhere, but it’s unfortunate that they’re cutting a scholarship program," Ms. Coffman said.

A memo issued by the Ohio Board of Regents in February indicated that scholarship award nominations under that merit-based program for the 2009-10 school year had been halted because of budgetary reasons. After appropriating $7.8 million in each of the last two years for academic scholarships, the line item has been zeroed out for the next two years.

Republicans and Democrats have made much of their commitment to continuing the freeze on college tuition begun two years ago.

But at the same time, the most recent version of the $54 billion, two-year budget passed by the Senate would eliminate several scholarship programs to put more emphasis on need-based financial aid, slow a new scholarship targeting math and science students, and halt a new public-private college internship program before it could get off the ground.

And that was before Gov. Ted Strickland’s budget director on Thursday told the House-Senate conference committee trying to fashion a final budget compromise that the proposed budget is already $2.5 billion to $3.2 billion out of balance because of plummeting tax collections.

"Many important things in higher education are valuable, and no one can argue against their value, but we also have a constitutional responsibility to balance the budget," said state Sen. Jon Husted (R., Kettering), who, as House speaker, presented Ms. Coffman with the scholarship certificate.

"Until the Senate voted, nobody – not the governor, nor the House – had a balanced budget," Mr. Husted said.

"In the Senate, we took a fiscally responsible approach and put our priorities together."
He has been the General Assembly’s loudest champion of Choose Ohio First scholarships to target students in the science, technology, engineering, math, and medical disciplines.
The $100 million appropriated for the program two years ago is now expected to be stretched over five years.

And Mr. Husted voted with fellow senators to indefinitely shelve the public-private internship program he proposed as a means of keeping more of Ohio’s top graduates in the state.

Ms. Coffman said the loss of the scholarship won’t prevent her from returning to UT in the fall, where she has benefited from lawmakers’ decision to freeze tuition for all students at public institutions.

But, as the oldest of seven children, she fears the loss of her scholarship may affect her parents’ ability to pay for her siblings’ college educations.

If the budget as now written becomes law, a student who entered a four-year, taxpayer-supported school such as the University of Toledo or the Ohio State University in the fall of 2007 would complete three of his four undergraduate years without a single tuition increase.

The budget would allow an increase of up to 3.5 percent in the second year of this budget.

Two-year schools such as Owens Community College and university branch campuses will not have imposed a tuition hike for four years.

"I have called tuition a higher-education tax on students and families in Ohio," Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said.

"We’re at about 150 percent of the national average," he said. "I don’t think any state has had three consecutive years of tuition freezes for four-year schools and four years for two-year schools."

When it comes to scholarships, the proposed budget’s emphasis is on student financial need.

The state’s largest source of financial aid is the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, which provides grants for students from low and moderate-income families making up to $75,000 a year.

The opportunity grant will stretch its dollars by first factoring in how much a student receives from federal Pell grants that have swelled thanks to the federal economic stimulus package and then factoring in how much the family would be expected to contribute before the opportunity grant program cuts a check.

The Student Choice Grant program that provided flat scholarships of $600, regardless of family income, to students attending private, nonprofit, and independent colleges such as Lourdes College and Mercy College of Northwest Ohio is being eliminated.

Instead, the state would carve out a portion of the opportunity grant funding for two new block grant programs targeting private, nonprofit schools and for-profit career colleges. For the first time, those awards would be made based on student need.

"We’re surprised that the focus on keeping a college education affordable only focuses on public college students," said C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, a group representing 52 private schools.

"What’s interesting about that is that every student who chooses an independent school saves Ohio money," he said.

"Ultimately, a student, especially a lower-income student, spends about as much at one of our colleges as at a public college," Mr. Jones said.

Kevin Kucera, UT’s associate vice president for enrollment management, said UT has proceeded with scholarship and financial aid decisions for the fall despite uncertainty over Ohio’s budget situation.

"All public institutions have been given a level to plug into their award letters, which we started packaging going back to March," he said.

"When you’ve got thousands of people in the queue, you have to have something to go out. "I have been involved with financial aid for 30 years in four different states, and typically, whenever there are shortfalls, they tinker with the dollar amounts of the awards," he said.

"For instance, if the maximum dollar amount is $2,500, they might send a letter that they’re only going to get $2,200."

TOLEDO BLADE

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