The National Science Foundation (NSF) got the go-ahead last week to launch its first ever stand-alone scholarship program to include undergraduates. The $21 million program will fund 8000 1-year scholarships of up to $2500 each to low-income students who want to pursue degrees in computer science, engineering, or mathematics.

The money for the program will come from a $500 fee that U.S. employers pay to the federal government for each high-tech worker they employ under an H-1B visa, which allows skilled workers into the U.S. for up to 6 years. The scholarship program was championed by Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) and is part of the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998, which raises the limit on H-1B visas from 65,000 in 1998 to 107,500 in 2001. In 2002 the visa limit will return to 65,000. According to an Abraham staffer, the scholarship program is intended to promote education in computer science, engineering, and math among young students so that the information technology worker void can be filled with U.S. citizens.

NSF will distribute awards to about 100 institutions that "have a track record with these kinds of students," says Norman Fortenberry, division director for undergraduate education at NSF. The universities would then grant as many as 80 1-year scholarships over a 2-year period to students based on financial need. Individual institutions will be responsible for determining what, if any, GPA or other criteria must be satisfied by the student. The money can be used toward tuition, room, and board.