The cost of tuition might have prevented Jennifer Covahey from attending a university. Or the pressure of becoming the first in her family to go to college. Or the foreignness of GPAs and roommate assignments to anyone from her south Baltimore neighborhood.

The Incentive Awards Program (IAP) at the University of Maryland represented not only a financial gift, but an entrée into a whole new life.

“The money ends up not even being the most important part. It was knowing that my life would be changed… knowing that someone was willing to take a risk on me and that a student from the high school that I graduated from could achieve this,” said Covahey ’08, now director of college success at CollegeBound Foundation.

Launched in 2000, IAP provides a full scholarship and additional support to exceptional students who demonstrate academic ability, uncommon persistence and maturity in overcoming challenges. Originally designed for students from Baltimore City, the program has grown to include Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. 

Following UMD's commencement next week, it will count a total of 188 graduates, many of whom have gone on to earn advanced degrees, launch successful careers in education, medicine, business and more, and serve their communities.

The program recently expanded through a $6.8 million gift from a Chicago couple, who made the largest gift to IAP and to the Maryland Promise Program, created by a 2017 investment from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation.

That landmark gift, along with student and alumni achievements, was celebrated at a May 12 virtual reception. (An anniversary celebration was postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Each fall in IAP, a group of students become part of a cohort that enters college as a close-knit unit to share information, collaborate and learn from each other over the course of four years. After they graduate, they serve as role models and mentors, and many also hold positions at nonprofits, schools and research institutions. This leadership is crucial to raising the aspirations of many young people in Maryland communities to include college in their future plans.

“The Incentive Awards Program is a vital part of our mission, providing opportunities for some of the most talented and dedicated students in our community to excel,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “We all benefit from this investment.”

IAP has grown from nine students in its first cohort to the 22 students who will enter the university in August. Today, over 40 schools in Baltimore City, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have sent students to UMD through IAP. Applications have soared from an initial 35 to 214 for the 2021-22 academic year, said Jacqueline W. Lee, director of IAP.

“Since the inception, the program has grown exponentially­,” said Lee. “I think this demographic is really critical. These students bring important experiences to campus––stories of perseverance, resilience and triumph.”

Half of IAP Scholars have studied abroad and several have been inducted into honor societies. In addition to an 84% graduation rate, about 40% of IAP graduates have completed or are pursuing graduate studies at institutions such as Cornell University, Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University.

The program, modeled after a similar one at the University of California, Berkeley, was created by former UMD President C.D. Mote, Jr., who saw that in 1998’s incoming class of 4,000 freshmen, only 40 were from public high schools in Baltimore City.

“In a scholarship program, students just get money to help pay their bills, but there’s no attempt by a scholarship program to change the culture of the student’s experience,” said Mote. “That’s what inspired me to create the Incentive Awards Program.”

The goal is to extend the IAP opportunity to students from every county in the state of Maryland, Lee said.