Study Finds Massachusetts Merit Scholarship Program Not Likely to Promote College Access
A new study, by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and Pennsylvania State University’s Center for the Study of Higher Education finds that the newly-created John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program in Massachusetts is likely to have little impact on college access in the state.
The study, conducted by Penn State education professor Dr. Donald E. Heller, finds that few racial minority and low-income students in Massachusetts are qualifying for the scholarships. This finding is particularly important in the wake of tuition prices, which have increased an average of 78 percent at the University of Massachusetts and the state colleges over the last four years.
The Adams Scholarships are awarded based solely on students’ performance in the 10th grade English and math tests of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The scholarships provide free tuition (but not fees) for up to four years at any public higher education institution in the state.
Heller analyzed four years of MCAS data from the Massachusetts Department of Education (which included over 60,000 students each year) to determine the rates at which students from different racial and class groups qualify for the scholarships. He found large gaps in the scholarship qualification rates across these groups. For example, while 25 percent of White 10th graders in 2005 attained MCAS scores necessary to qualify for a scholarship, only 8 percent of African-American and 8 percent of Hispanic students attained the necessary scores.
Heller also found that only 10 percent of students in Massachusetts who participate in the national School Lunch Program — whose family incomes were below $35,000 — qualified for Adams Scholarships. In comparison, 26 percent of students not participating in the lunch program qualified for scholarships.
“The results of this study demonstrate that the students who historically have had the lowest college going rates — minority, lower-income and educationally disadvantaged students — are those least likely to qualify for an Adams Scholarship,” says Heller.
“This is an inefficient and ineffective use of public dollars to promote college attendance in the state,” he says. “Massachusetts would be better off investing the money spent on this program in its existing need-based grants if it is interested in closing the gaps in college attendance in the Commonwealth.”
The findings from this study have relevance for states other than Massachusetts. “States that are considering implementing merit scholarship programs should be careful when deciding what criteria to use for awarding the scholarships,” Heller says. “The use of criteria that result in large gaps in the awards, as found in Massachusetts, will similarly disadvantage students in other states.”
Dr. Gary Orfield, director of The Civil Rights Project and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says, “Massachusetts needs to get serious about college access and civil rights. With a stagnant population, growing minority communities with segregated and inferior schools and an economy that has few low skill jobs, we simply must educate our people. To poorly support the students who cannot afford the soaring costs, while shifting state funds to privileged White students whose families could easily pay, undermines our future.”
The full study, “MCAS Scores and the Adams Scholarships: A Policy Failure,” can be downloaded at: www.civilrightsproject.harvard.edu/news/pressreleases/merit_policy_brief.pdf
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