Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Question of MERIT

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Question of MERIT

Article excerpt

Merit-based scholarship programs gained popularity in a number of but many wonder at what (or whose) expense.


Ten years ago, the state best known for its peaches launched a revolution that still reverberates in the halls of colleges and universities across the country. Faced with a plethora of poorly performing high-school students and a growing number of graduates fleeing the state for postsecondary study, Georgia unveiled its Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship plan. The ambitious grant program now pays for qualifying students' books, fees and entire tuition, regardless of the students' finances, at the in-state public college of their choice, and chips in thousands of dollars toward private-college tuition bills.

The popularity of the HOPE program has caught the attention of educators across the nation: At least 12 other states have since established merit-based plans of their own, and scores of others have created spin-off versions with high ceilings on the amount of money a middle-income family can earn and still qualify.

While success stories abound about how merit programs have increased enrollment and staunched states' brain drains, some educators question whether the scholarship money should instead be given to students who lack the means to pay for tuition.

Critics argue that eliminating financial need from the formula for determining eligibility for scholarships is changing the face of who gets to go to college today, cutting out students who need aid the most - poor, non-White students - and tilting college-access opportunities toward those who need help the least - Whites from middle- and upper-income families.

The thinking is that middle- and upper-income White students tend to go to better high schools, where they can earn higher grades and score higher on college-placement exams, the two most common factors that determine eligibility for merit awards.

Students stuck in poorer neighborhood schools, meanwhile, tend not to perform as well, particularly on standardized national tests, and consequently are not as likely to qualify for the free rides.

"We don't give food stamps to kids of rich fami lies," said Dr. Donald E. Heller, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University who has researched the issue. "(The) same should be true of college scholarships."


Need-based scholarships remain the predominant source of state financial aid for college students, but the College Board reports that merit programs are growing by leaps and bounds. The amount of money available for merit plans is now triple the amount available a decade ago, while money for need-based plans has remained more static. What that shift in spending means for students, colleges and communities has been the subject of much controversy.

"There is a lot of acrimony out there on this issue," said Harvard researcher and professor Dr. Susan Dynarski, who has studied whether merit programs widen racial and economic gaps between those who are able to attend college and those who are not.

The lion's share of merit-plan money goes to four-year colleges and universities, though the impact of the programs' growth has also been felt in the nation's community colleges.

"It is fair to say we are concerned about it," said David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges' vice president for government relations.

In Florida, one of the states Heller has studied, the merit-based Bright Futures program has been so popular that changes in the plan proposed earlier this year spurred 500 students at Florida International University to grab up picket signs and protest.

But Heller, who has been a vocal critic of the merit scholarships, said changes are needed to correct disparities in Florida's plan. he noted that, "African Americans and Hispanics qualify for the scholarships at rates well below those of White and Asian American students. …

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