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Utah students lose scholarships over budget woes

Published: Friday, July 15 2011 4:06 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of college students who won scholarships won’t be receiving that money after all. The reason: The continuing national budget crisis.

The Robert C. Byrd Scholarship, named after the late West Virginia senator, is the only federally funded scholarship. Based on academic merit, it’s awarded to high school students who show exceptional promise for college.

About 250 Utah students were counting on that money, and many are just now finding out it’s no longer available.

“Right now, I’m kind of thinking about it, and that’s $1,500 that I can’t rely on,” Utah State University sophomore Mitch Dabling said. “Now I’m going to have to rebudget myself and try to figure out how I’m going to pay for my housing because that’s what I usually use that money for.”

Dabling is a civil engineering student. He's received the Byrd Scholarship for the past two years.

“It's only $1,500,” he said, “but for a student where we have to pay tuition, which is thousands of dollars, I make $8.50 an hour, and I work full time and part time through the school year to be able to pay for books fees and everything, which continues to go up.”

Brenda Hales with the State Office of Education said they just found out at the end of June that the money is no longer available and are now trying to notify students.

“We feel bad for these students who have been counting on the funds,” Hales said. “Their application reminds them that they have to renew annually, and it’s always subject to available funding.”

The bill to defund the Byrd scholarship was part of the Continuing Budget Resolution for Fiscal Year 2011 — to keep the government from shutting down.

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Sen. Orrin Hatch all voted against the budget, which would cut the scholarship program.

“Sen. Lee voted no because in the face of historic deficits the bill did not do enough to address our financial problems,” said Brian Williams, Lee’s communications director. “The bill began in the House and the scholarship was included. Senator Lee’s vote was not motivated by the scholarships in any way, but rather by the overall failure to address spending in a meaningful way.”

Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Jim Matheson voted for the cuts.

In a statement Matheson said, "In the drive to lower our dangerous federal deficits, everything has to be on the table as we cut spending and reform the budget process. Many worthy programs, such as this particular scholarship program, were reduced as part of that shared sacrifice.”

In the long run, he said, reining in the federal debt will strengthen the economy and make America more competitive with the rest of the world.

Bishop's office responded: "While many of these programs are well-intentioned, and there is no question that many scholarship programs are, the reality is that the federal government simply doesn't have the money.”

He said the cuts had to be made across the board to reverse the rapid downward spiral of debt that this country has amassed.

The Utah State Office of Education said there was money left over from last year, which will provide funds for 174 of the Byrd Scholarship winners — all of them high school students.

As for Mitch Dabling, he said losing the scholarship was an eye-opening experience for him, and now he’s getting more involved in politics.

“I’ve been trying to contact people so that we can get some support,” he said, “to lobby to have this in the budget next year.”

Contributing:  Viviane Vo-Duc

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