Merit Scholarships: Pivotal Shift in Aid More States - and Now the US - Are Giving Students Financial Aid on the Basis of Grades, after Decades of Focusing on Need

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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 federal aid. 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 its panache." 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. …

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