SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County last week called into question the success and future of a taxpayer-funded scholarship program.
Last week, Bryan Newton, vice president of enrollment management and student services at Wor-Wic Community College, met with the Wicomico County Council in an open work session to present a report on the Wicomico Economic Impact Scholarship (WEIS) program.
The WEIS program – created in 2016 – is funded by Wicomico County and offers free tuition to eligible high school graduates. The belief is that local students who benefit from the scholarship will complete their degrees, seek work in the community and ultimately grow the county’s tax base.
While Wor-Wic officials argue the program has removed some of the financial barriers to a college education, the success of the program has often been met with some skepticism from members of the county council.
“I know we don’t always agree on the structure of this program,” Newton said, “but we know you are committed to Wor-Wic and the work we do.”
In his report last week, Newton told the council the number of students applying to the program increased from 131 in 2016 to 183 in 2017, but the number of students who ultimately received WEIS funding decreased from 25 to 18.
“The number of those receiving the Wicomico Economic Impact funding is fairly low across all the cohorts …,” he said. “The biggest challenge we have with the program continues to be the income cap. It allows very few students to take advantage of the funding that you have provided. That’s why we have the large balance remaining.”
Newton said $120,081 of the $212,000 the county invested in the program remained in the scholarship fund.
“After two years of the program, the total cost for 2016 and 2017 combined has been $91,918.72,” he said.
Members of the council, however, questioned the county’s investment in the program.
“It looks like a total of 19 students did not continue in both cohorts and four transferred to another school,” Councilman Larry Dodd said. “I thought our goal was to try and keep people in the county instead of transferring. I’m also looking at 13 who had below a 2.0 (GPA), one was 0.3 and two were 0.5 … In the future, how can we justify paying for these college credits when some of the students aren’t even passing?”
Newton explained that while some students left the program to pursue a bachelor’s degree at another school, some students simply couldn’t meet the GPA and credit requirements.
“We do everything we can to support them …,” he said. “Ultimately, the student has to do his or her part. We can’t do it for them.”
Newton also noted that some members of the county council have asked for Wor-Wic officials to submit an action plan for dissolving the WEIS program in light of a new statewide College Promise program that will allow some students to attend community college for free.
“We are not prepared to give you a recommendation at this time,” he said, “and the reason is we don’t know enough about the Promise program to give you a recommendation.”
Newton argued it is not yet clear how the statewide program will be administered or how funding would be allocated.
“The community colleges have asked for $35 million to $45 million in that program and it was funded at $15 million,” he said. “We believe that means not everybody who was eligible for the community college scholarship program will be able to be funded in the coming year.”
Councilman Marc Kilmer agreed with Newton.
“I think it makes sense to wait until the state figures out what they are doing with their program,” he said.