A Question of Merit By Dee Anne FinkenATLANTATen 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 families,” 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.”Remembering the NeediestNeed-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.”Heller found that White students, who constitute 61 percent of Florida’s high-school graduates, made up 77 percent of the merit-scholarship recipients. By contrast, Blacks account for 21.7 percent of the state’s graduates, but they pick up only 7.5 percent of the merit awards.In Michigan, where he found similar trends, Heller is an expert witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the state. The organization alleges that Michigan violates the civil rights of minority students because of the huge gaps researchers have found among the rates of Whites versus Blacks versus Hispanics who qualify for the programs.Heller said merit programs represent a 180-degree shift from the goal set by the Higher Education Act of 1965 to expand opportunities to all to attend college. “As we spend more and more on merit, it will move us away from that goal of closing the gap between rich and poor,” he said.That concern is echoed by many who work in the financial-aid trenches, said Kenneth E. Redd, director of research at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “Most financial-aid administrators we’ve talked with have a real problem with shifting away from those with significant needs to those whose needs aren’t as great,” he said.But Dynarski, the Harvard researcher who initially had concerns about merit programs, said they do not necessarily shunt money away from those who need it most. “If designed properly, merit programs can close the gaps,” she said.She, too, studied Florida’s program, along with the merit-based programs in Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. After tracking data over a period of time, Dynarksi’s study found that Georgia was the only state in which the racial gap widened.“I found that it is actually possible to design merit-based programs that will do the job,” she said.Dynarski said merit-based plans are effective for a number of reasons, including their simplicity. Unlike lengthy, tedious applications for Pell Grants and other sources of student aid, merit-scholarship paperwork is typically brief and straight to the point — a big plus for students whose parents aren’t fluent in English or are immigrants.The merit-based plans’ simplicity also makes it easy for students to start high school with a clear goal in mind and a clear-cut incentive for earning good grades: If they study hard and maintain a good grade-point average through high school and college, they can graduate without any student loans to pay off.But Dynarski cautioned that not all merit programs are created equal. One thing merit programs should not use to determine eligibility, for example, is a test score on a college-entrance exam such as the SAT or ACT, she said. Such tests can unfairly screen out minority students stuck in poor high schools, according to Dynarski.Instead, she recommends that merit programs set a relatively high grade-point-average requirement, such as a 3.0, for a high-school graduate to first earn a merit award. Dynarski also advocates that once a merit-scholarship student is in college, he or she should only have to keep his or her GPA at or above 2.5 to continue receiving the award money.Who Pays the Price?Unfortunately, Dynarski said, Georgia’s HOPE program may soon add the SAT requirement as a way to pare down the number of eligible students. The runaway success of HOPE, which was originally more modest in scope, and was intended to be paid for wholly by proceeds from the state’s new lottery, has since increased the programs’ cost by hundreds of millions of dollars, and lawmakers are scrambling for ways to control the financial hemorrhage.Other states’ merit-scholarship programs are hurting, too. The more popular they become with students and their parents, the bigger their drain on state coffers that have already been depleted from the prolonged nationwide recession. But that very popularity with the public makes state legislators all the more reluctant to make changes to the programs that might anger voters.Dr. Frank Renz, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges, said he learned that lesson when he began lobbying for a change in an early version of that state’s Lottery Success Scholarship program.Renz was eventually able to negotiate a roughly level playing field for New Mexico’s community colleges, enabling them to receive the state’s Lottery Success Scholarship money within much the same framework as the state’s universities. But in the process, Renz said, he got an up-close demonstration of how resistant lawmakers are to alter even slightly a policy that the voting public loves.He said he quickly learned one “must step gingerly when tampering with changes because of the reported high success” of the program.Another sore point is the source of the money that funds many HOPE-esque scholarships.Florida and Kentucky, like Georgia and New Mexico, fund their merit-scholarship programs with lottery revenues, which irks critics who note that lower-income people tend to play the state lottery more often than middle- and upper-income people. “When we take a look at who plays the lottery, we see African Americans and the poor,” said Heller, the Penn State professor. “So it’s really a big-income transfer.”A Different Kindof Brain DrainWhile studies of the specific effects of merit programs on community colleges have been limited, Victoria Hernandez, the director of governmental affairs at Miami-Dade College, the country’s largest community college, speculated about outcomes. Often, Hernandez said, when a high-school student wins a merit scholarship, he or she will pick a four-year school over a two-year school because it means the student will get more education for free.To be sure, community-college enrollment in Florida and elsewhere has been increasing so greatly that few two-year schools are hurting for enrollment. But Hernandez said the shift she has observed — the preference of merit-scholarship students for four years of education rather than two — prompts the question: “Does it change who attends community colleges?”Vera Brooks, the director of financial aid at Atlanta Metropolitan College, a two-year school in Atlanta, gives high marks to the HOPE program, saying it has dramatically increased student enrollment at her college.But she said it also has caused a different kind of brain drain than the one HOPE was originally intended to stem. Poor high-school graduates with good grades who might have once brought their academic prowess to a community college can now qualify for a merit scholarship that allows them to skip straight to a university.“(A) lot of kids who may have had no option but community colleges (now) go to four-year schools,” she said.That also prompts the question of whether community colleges are increasingly becoming mere reservoirs for students with academic problems — those who couldn’t meet grade and test requirements to get into more demanding four-year schools.Another factor facing community colleges is that many merit plans can’t be used by part-time students, and it is often at community colleges that part-time students find their best educational options.But perhaps one of the biggest concerns to educators at two- and four-year institutions is whether the offer of free tuition fuels further tuition hikes to cover rising college expenses — expenses that states once paid for, but may now be too strapped to handle, thanks in part to the soaring costs of merit programs.Redd, of the association of financial aid administrators, said as colleges increase tuition, merit awards are following suit, creating an upward spiral with no end in sight.“It’s a real Catch-22,” he said.
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