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Sen. Byrd scholarship cut from federal budget

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A long-standing scholarship program named in honor of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd was quietly whittled out of the federal budget earlier this year, apparently because the late senator was no longer around to fight for it.

The Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship was eliminated last month as part of budget negotiations between the White House and Congress.

Byrd, D-W.Va., founded the program, which provides students with an annual merit-based scholarship, in 1985 and fought hard to expand and protect it over the next 25 years.  

When it began, the scholarship provided a one-time, $1,500 grant to selected high school seniors across the country.

In 1992, the program was expanded to provide the $1,500 for each of the four years the student was in college.

By last year, 28,000 students across the country - including 146 in West Virginia - were receiving the scholarship.

Over the years, Byrd touted the grant as one of the most effective ways to fund a student's education, because it required that they maintain good grades in college.

"The great thing about the grant is that it's based on how hard they study in the library and the lab," Byrd told a group of recipients in Shepherdstown in 1994.

Presidents repeatedly have tried to cut the program from the federal budget, but Byrd always managed to fend off those attempts.

In 2008, when President George W. Bush proposed cutting funding for the program, Byrd took him to task.  

"The president has slammed the door to a college education in the faces of young Americans," Byrd said at the time.

"This president pays lip service to the importance of education and its impact on the future of our state and nation, but he will not invest the resources to back up his rhetoric."

President Barack Obama included funding for the program in his fiscal year 2010 budget. However, the Obama administration cut the funding in the 2011 budget.

The administration said the scholarships affected only 0.3 percent of students. The administration also argued that because the scholarship was merit-based, the money likely was going to individuals who could tap existing grant and loan programs.

"Given the high academic performance of the students who receive the award, many of these students would still enter an undergraduate course of study and graduate even without receiving the scholarship," administration officials said in their fiscal year 2012 budget report.

Administration officials also cut the $2 million in funding for the Erma Byrd Scholarship Fund, which provided financial assistance to students pursing careers in industrial health and safety occupations, including mine safety.

While the Robert Byrd program will not be taking new applicants, officials with the U.S. Department of Education said they hope to phase out the scholarships over the next few years for those currently enrolled in college who have received the awards in the past.

The Byrd scholarship isn't the only program named after a late U.S. lawmaker that was cut in this year's budget process.

According to The Washington Post, Congress also agreed to cut $10 million from the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pa., which was a pet project of the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa.

Funding also was cut for the Denali Commission, an agency created by former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Interestingly, Stevens was the senator who requested that the national merit-based scholarship program be named after Byrd.

While Byrd is no longer around to criticize the cut, the state's current senior senator expressed disappointment that the administration and Congress had refused to fund the program.

"We shouldn't cut core programs that make us more competitive and invest in our future," U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, the Byrd Scholarship program, which is a smart investment, was cut. It provided valuable assistance to the brightest young minds in the country to allow them to reach their full potential by rewarding academic achievement."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at or 304-348-5148.


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