A federal merit-based scholarship program that many Yale students use to help fund their four years of university study may be eliminated under President Bush’s 2006 fiscal year budget.
The Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, established by West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, provides high-achieving students with $1,500 annually for the four years of college. The proposed elimination of the program, which awarded $40.6 million in scholarships to some 27,000 students nationwide this year, has left some students worried about how they are going compensate for the loss in funding.
A significant number of Yale students receive the scholarship because it is merit-based, said Yale Director of Financial Aid Myra Smith, who declined to provide the specific number of Byrd scholars at the University. The scholarship is awarded based on students’ high school grade point averages and standardized test scores, meaning its elimination would likely have a disproportionate effect on students attending the nation’s top public and private universities.
In addition to the elimination of the Byrd program, Bush has proposed cutting some of the funds allocated to 64 existing education programs and using those funds to finance new education initiatives. Notably, he has planned a 45 percent increase, a total of about $19 billion, in funding for Pell Grants, which provides grant money to help low- and middle-income students pay for university study.
Students at Yale who use the scholarships say that, although the program’s funds cover a relatively small portion of Yale’s tuition, the program’s elimination is not consistent with Bush’s stated support for education.
“Fifteen-hundred dollars compared to $36,000 is not a huge amount, but it’s still $1,500,” said Jonathan Sherman-Presser ’06, a Byrd scholar. “I don’t think it is going to change things for me, but there are probably people who need that money more than I do.”
Smith said the money provided by the Byrd scholarship is used to fund the self-help portion of a student’s financial aid award.
“If the student is eligible for need-based financial aid, they would still be able to access the self-help portion of their award, but it means they would either have to work or borrow rather than have this scholarship,” Smith said.
Smith said she is not yet sure how likely it is that the proposal, still in its preliminary stages, will succeed.
Patrick Ward ’08, a recipient of a Byrd Scholarship, said the $1,500 award helps him pay the student contribution portion of his financial aid award. If the program is eliminated, he said he likely will have to take a job or a loan to make up the difference.
“I had a lot of first-year scholarships, but in terms of four-year scholarships very few are like that,” said Ward, a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News. “If they were to cut it that could certainly change my status. I will definitely have to work or take loans or come up with the money from somewhere.”
Justifying the elimination of the program’s funding, the U.S. Department of Education said in a recently released report that the Byrd program duplicates the efforts of other existing programs which provide assistance for higher education. Moreover, the report said, the Byrd program has not produced measurable results.
But supporters of the program said they doubt the Bush Administration’s justifications for the proposed elimination of the program and said the program, which Byrd established in 1985, has been a success.
“That’s probably the most confounding aspect of the entire budget,” said Byrd’s Senate spokesman Tom Gavin. “There’s very little doubt considering the record of success that these students have shown. It is certainly recognizing and applauding achieving in the classroom.”
Byrd, who was first elected to the Senate in 1958, has been an outspoken opponent of some of President Bush’s policies, including the president’s handling of the war in Iraq.
Ward said the Byrd Scholarship is especially valuable because, unlike many state or private scholarships, does not dictate in what state a student must attend school, nor what subject the recipient must study.
“It’s a stupid decision in terms of cutting funding for students to attend college, especially when that’s taken into account with cutting funding for other federal loans and grants to low-income students,” Ward said. “It’s certainly not getting any easier for students and their families to pay for college.”
Congress is currently debating the budget and is expected to vote on it in coming weeks.