ANNAPOLIS – The last thing on Dakota January Littlefeather Williams’ mind is college.
He’s 13-and-a-half months old, and is just starting to explore – grabbing faces, hands, pens, anything in reach. He likes to walk on his own, and cries when his mother picks him up. He doesn’t know his higher education is already paid for, and his parents couldn’t be happier.
The toddler was the lucky recipient of a full-tuition contract through the Maryland Prepaid College Trust from Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore where he was born. The program allows individuals to purchase a child’s college education at current tuition rates, then the contract pays for the child’s full in-state tuition and mandatory fees when college education begins.
Now that Dakota’s education is taken care of, “We’re just very excited about it,” said his mom, Stephanie Gladden of Baltimore. “I want him to do whatever he wants to do” in college, she said.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening pronounced the program a success at a news conference Tuesday, where Dakota did his best to out-shout Maryland’s chief executive.
Enrollment has risen from 1,100 during its first enrollment period in April 1998 to more than 5,400 during its fourth enrollment period last October, Glendening said. The total enrolled now tops 10,500.
In its first year, the program got off to a disappointing start with a much lower enrollment than expected. In following years, the board in charge of the program began promoting it more heavily and offering more incentives, according to published reports.
The program has undergone many changes since its inception, Glendening said, including an expansion of payment options and allowing older children to enroll.
Last year, a Maryland legislative guarantee was added, which says that the governor must include funds in his budget to pay off tuition and fees should the trust be unable to cover the costs in a given year.
Glendening praised trust sponsors, including Donald Davidoff, a former Prince George’s County resident whose decision to sponsor a trust for David Camden, a first-grader from Kenilworth Elementary School, encouraged others in the community, including his own parents, to do so. Davidoff’s parents attended the news conference.
“One person took one idea and it is now gradually spreading throughout our community,” Glendening said.
“I know (David Camden) is going to go far,” said Rhonda Cipolla, his teacher.
Glendening said contracts are being used in a variety of ways: as rewards, community service and workplace incentives.
For example, Union Memorial Hospital purchased a Maryland Prepaid College Trust contract for one child born in its hospital in the year 2000. The idea was to celebrate renovation of its obstetrics unit and the millenium, said Harrison Rider, hospital president. Dakota’s name was randomly selected from 1,000 babies.
For the parents of children who receive these trusts, it is more than a reward.
“It’s a blessing,” said Deborah Phillips of Laurel, whose 6-year-old daughter Nataki was given a trust contract by Sheila Leiss, a Bowie resident. “It just popped out of nowhere.”
Phillips is a single mother with five children, Nataki the youngest.
While she still has four other children’s education to worry about, she laughed as she recalled Nataki’s reaction to the gift: “Mom, I can’t go to college, I’m only in the first grade.”