Bay State's New Revolution: Free Tuition ; in an Era of Tuition Angst, a Controversial Plan Gives a Free Ride at State Colleges to Top Fourth of Test Takers

By Elizabeth Armstrong writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Bay State's New Revolution: Free Tuition ; in an Era of Tuition Angst, a Controversial Plan Gives a Free Ride at State Colleges to Top Fourth of Test Takers


Elizabeth Armstrong writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


For high school students across Massachusetts, the path to college may have just gotten easier.

Since 2002, they have had to pass a standardized test to graduate. But in June, the state board of higher education added a carrot alongside that stick: a promise that the top 25 percent of test-takers will qualify for four years of free tuition at any state college or university.

The move was controversial, opening a rift between education officials and legislators and sparking a larger debate about which families should be the beneficiaries of taxpayer money. But it also suggests continuing momentum for merit scholarships in an era when tuition is a bank-account breaker for many families.

Such programs have spread to more than a dozen states since Georgia launched its HOPE program in 1993. The movement has widened in recent years despite arguments that the students who are rewarded typically come from more affluent families and communities.

"There's a strong argument for giving money to kids who are going to perform well over those who are not," says Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University. "But should lower- and middle-income taxpayers be subsidizing the children of upper-income professionals with $200,000 incomes? Why should the government be in the business of subsidizing people from those types of incomes at all?"

Several states award scholarships to top performers of standardized exams. In Georgia, the state awards free tuition to students with B averages or higher - a system many argue has led to grade inflation.

In Massachusetts, the state board of higher education recently voted 8-2 in favor of Gov. Mitt Romney's scholarship plan, overriding the state legislature's opposition.

A plan with merit?

Governor Romney touts the program, which is projected to cost taxpayers $34 million annually, as a way to lure more of the state's highest-scoring students, many of whom can afford private school tuition, into its higher education system - and as a way to encourage all students to score better on the exam.

To some legislators and educators, however, the plan would funnel money into the pockets of the very students who least need assistance.

According to a Boston Globe analysis of Department of Education data, the scholarship money will be distributed to far more students in high-income school districts than low-income ones. In the wealthy town of Weston, Mass., for instance, where the median family income is $181,000, nearly two-thirds of high school students would qualify for free tuition at a state school.

By contrast, 3 percent of students in blue-collar Lowell, Mass., score well enough to see the aid.

The plan also troubles the immigrant community. Noncitizens who score high enough to qualify for the aid wonder if they will be eligible for it, as Romney's recent budget characterizes those who are not yet American citizens as ineligible for in-state tuition, no matter how long they have lived in the state. He has yet to publicly declare whether noncitizens who score high enough will see any of the scholarship money. …

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