First there were scholarships for straight-A students, the kids
with crisply ironed shirts and long attention spans. Then came
college grants for poor and disadvantaged students. Now, B students
have something to cheer about on graduation day.
Following the lead of Georgia, a growing number of states are
offering college scholarships to all high school graduates with B
averages. The idea of rewarding good grades is also a key component
of President Clinton's education budget, and appears likely to pass
with the support of the Republican-led Congress.
But this quiet trend of rewarding good grades is drawing its
share of controversy. Critics say merit programs will just help
those students who would have attended college anyway. Supporters
respond that they help a large pool of middle-class kids who are
too poor to pay tuitions out of pocket and too rich to qualify for
The debate points up a fundamental conflict in American
education: rewarding excellence versus helping the most needy.
"If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that
need-based aid was the big trend," says David Breneman, dean of the
education school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville
and a supporter of need-based aid. "But now, need has lost a bit of
The civil rights era of the mid-1960s and early '70s was a
heyday for need-based college aid, and federal programs grew
exponentially. Last year, state and federal governments and private
institutions gave out a total of $50 billion in college aid -
nearly $35 billion of it earmarked for poor students.
The merits of merit
But in recent years, this need-based aid has come under
increasing attack. Conservatives and moderates argue that students
should get aid the old-fashioned way - by earning it.
This viewpoint now may be gaining more widespread acceptance. A
recent study indicates that merit scholarships may have a positive
impact on student performance.
In the first academic study of its kind, researchers at Georgia
State University tracked the recipients of Georgia's HOPE
scholarships, which provide public-college tuition to students who
maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. The study found that HOPE
students tended to get better grades, take more classes, and were
more likely to complete college than a matched sample of students
who didn't receive aid.
"Basically, it comes down to rewarding behavior," says Daniel
Bugler, a researcher at Georgia State University and co-author of
the study. "Somehow, just being named as scholars, with all the
prestige and press coverage, students are more likely to think of
themselves as college material and stick it out. …