'Merit' Scholarships Shifting Funds to the Wealthy


Kelly Ryan, a "B" average student at the University of Georgia, used her college trust fund to purchase a new Honda, trips to Italy, Switzerland and Argentina, and to invest (and lose) in the stock market. Enough was left over to possibly purchase her first piece of real estate upon graduation. Likewise, Kristin McKenna, whose parents' income is over $200,000 a year, used her college fund to purchase a Ford.

Rather than using their college trust funds for books and classes, they relied on scholarships from the government. Ms. Ryan's and Ms. McKenna's windfalls are not anomalies, but rather are becoming the norm for the wealthy. At least 12 states shifted from scholarships based on need to "merit."

 

The percentage of students from families with annual incomes over $100,000 who received state grants between 1992 and 2000 grew seven times faster than students coming from families with earnings under $20,000 a year, according to the Department of Education. Additionally, University grants to the highest-income students grew twice as fast as those awards given to the lowest-income students.

 

Not surprisingly, a study conducted by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project showed that students from the wealthiest high schools in Florida and Michigan were more than twice as likely to win a merit scholarship than their counterparts from the poorest schools. When some states, like Florida, considered shifting more funds toward need-based scholarship, they were met with formidable political resistance.

 

The federal government also provides the wealthiest private universities, which serve the smallest percentage of low-income students, more financial aid dollars than colleges with a greater share of poor students. Ivy League schools also received from the federal government five to eight times the median in order to pay their students in work-study jobs. And, in spite of these Ivy League schools having the largest endowments in the world (i.e., Yale and Harvard at over $10 billion and Princeton at $8.7 billion) they still received from the federal government five to 20 times the median amount of grant money for students' everyday needs.

 

These disturbing statistics prompt me to wonder if it is ethical to give scholarships to the rich, particularly at the expense of the poor? Should public funds be given to those who have the means to attend college anyway?

 

Because the wealthy are predominately white, and the poor are predominately of color, critics claim a policy shift toward merit is a continuous attempt to limit the number of students of color in higher education.

 

In most states, merit is determined by SAT scores, which discriminate against Latino/a and black students. Every question appearing on the SAT is carefully pretested by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Hence, testers can determine in advance how members of one ethnic group will fare on any particular question. On some questions, whites consistently pick the correct answer, on other questions, minorities perform better than white. Yet, according to Jay Rosner, executive director of the Princeton Review Foundation, the only questions appearing on SAT exams are the white-preference questions.

 

In an article published in the Harvard Educational Review (Spring 2003) a former ETS researcher charged that black students often performed better on harder verbal questions than whites because terms used in common vocabulary were at times understood differently by members of different racial/ethnic groups. Yet, these harder questions were not incorporated into SAT exams.

 

The inherent racism of SAT exams is justified though a cyclical and self-reinforcing logic. The reason a question chosen for the SAT favors white students is due to how "reliability" is defined by the test designers. A question intended to be difficult is considered reliable if those who score highest consistently do well on the exam, and those who score low on that particular question consistently do poorly on the exam. Thus the highest achievers among test takers, which historically have been white students, set the standards.

 

Questions where whites perform better, by definition, are reliable, and questions where they do poorly become unreliable, and hence eliminated from consideration, even though students of color may score higher. If this is true, should SAT be the means of determining merit?

 

Still some defenders of the shift to merit scholarships insist this political move slows the migration of students to more attractive and cooler states. Are merit scholarships in reality an economic development tool for states desperate to retain their college-bound students? Should this be the purpose of scholarship money?

 

What I find interesting in this whole debate is the persisting myth that students of color are getting most of the scholarships because of affirmative action. In reality, the only affirmative action in scholarships that exists benefits the wealthiest among us. Something is wrong with this picture!

 

Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.

 

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