One of the biggest concerns for many families is how they are going to pay their children's college expenses. In the academic year 2002-2003, the average cost of attendance at four-year public colleges and universities was more than $9,100, while the average price of attendance at private institutions was almost $21,700, according to the College Board.
Concerns are even greater for African Americans who enroll in college at lower rates and generally have less income available to pay college costs than Whites. A number of states have responded to families' anxiety about rising college prices by instituting academic merit scholarship programs, which use high school grades or scores on standardized tests to award state-funded grants to students entering higher education. Supporters of state-based merit aid believe these scholarships encourage hard work in high school, reward meritorious academic achievement and increase college-going rates for all students. But there is mounting evidence that merit awards do little more than provide additional scholarship funds to middle- and upper-income White students at the expense of college access for low-income African Americans.
State merit scholarships represent a relatively new approach to student financial assistance. Traditionally, state grants have been awarded to students based on their financial need, with those from the lowest-income families generally receiving first priority for funds. However, state merit aid has grown very quickly. Between 1995 and 2001, total state spending on merit and other "non-need-based" grants jumped 134 percent, while funding for "need-based" scholarships grew only 26 percent. The largest state merit aid program, Georgia's Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) Scholarship, distributed more than $225 million to Georgia students in academic year 2000-2001. Two other large merit scholarship programs include the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, which awarded $165 million, and the Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program. While funding for merit grants grew quickly, the gap in college attendance between White and Black Americans remained large. The College Board reports that about 56 percent of African Americans aged 16 to 24 in 2000 were enrolled in postsecondary education, compared with 64 percent of Whites.
Policy-makers in Georgia, Florida and Michigan hope the criteria they have established for awarding merit grants will increase the college-attendance rates of all students by encouraging academic achievement. To receive a HOPE scholarship, Georgia high school graduates must have at least a B average in core curriculum courses. To receive an Academic Scholars award under the Bright Futures program, Florida's graduating high school seniors must have at least a 3.5 grade point average, plus a minimum score of 1270 on the SAT or 28 on the ACT. In Michigan, awards are distributed based on students' scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program High Schools Test. In all cases, grants are awarded to students regardless of their families' income or financial need.
Higher-income White students generally have access to better high schools and college admissions test preparation materials, and recent research on the Georgia, Florida and Michigan programs make a strong case that these factors make the award criteria used to distribute merit grants favor wealthier White students at the expense of low-income African Americans. Dr. Donald E. Heller, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University, has found that in 1998, white, non-Hispanics accounted for about 61 percent of Florida's high school graduates, but represented 77 percent of Bright Futures scholarship winners. On the other hand, nearly 22 percent of Florida high school graduates were African American, but these students accounted for less than 10 percent of the Bright Futures recipients. In Michigan, African Americans constituted 14 percent of the high school graduates, but represented just 8 percent of merit scholarship winners. …