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Merit Scholarships Should Be Earned Not Handed Out

Jun 3, 2008
I've read about the decisions of flagship state universities to increase merit-based, not need-based scholarships to the best-of-best students, the ones who might have chosen an Ivy League school, or other highly selective private college.

This is not an academic strategy as much as it is an economic development strategy; state politicians do not want the best students to take their talents out of state, and possibly never return. However, this is an expensive strategy, as a state university ends up pursuing students who have not marked it down as their first-choice school. That's unfair to other students who can get accepted, but truly need financial assistance to enroll. It's also unfair to ask bright people to consider staying in a state that has lost employment or failed to improve its quality of life. Bright people gravitate to places where other bright people want to live and work.

The fairest, but most improbable, option is make the flagship school tuition-free for everyone, regardless of need; the only non-academic expenses being housing or commuting. Free tuition would also make the school more selective, since it becomes a powerful incentive that any admitted student can receive -- as long as they get in. In this case, merit isn't a hand out, it is earned from competition.

City College of New York (CCNY) was a free institution when my father and the early Baby Boomers went to college and it was regarded as one of the best public institutions in the country. But free tuition sometimes means fewer amenities; for instance, Cooper Union, a top notch engineering and design school in New York that had been free from day one, has no luxury dorms or football teams. But if you get into to join ultra-selective group, and pay nothing, the lack of amenities should mean nothing, if there are rewards to come. Cooper Union must be doing something right; only 10 percent of their applicants get in. The same is true for the more modern, and free, Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, and with our military service academies. But Cooper Union, and Olin are small schools, and our three military service academies are mid-sized with approximately 4,500 students each. They do not come close to having the enrollment obligations of a flagship state school.

So I'd like to offer a suggestion: make the merit-based aid awards fairer and more accessible to students who truly want to attend a flagship school -- by asking the students to apply for them after they get in. Junk the numbers: SATs, grades and class rank from the process and have an open competition among admitted students based on essays, portfolios and interviews, just as the Ivy League schools do. Any applicant who believes that they are worthy of a free ride gets a shot to prove it. And don't guarantee a free ride for four years; make the recipient prove that they are worthy each year. I know people knock athletes for their free rides, but they're asked to make athletic progress and academic progress to maintain them. An athlete who gets out of playing shape or gets in trouble is kicked off the team, and quite often, kicked out of school.

I realize that a competitive merit scholarship program may be more cumbersome for financial aid officers at the flagship universities, but a state school is different from a selective private school. It has more resources, but it takes a very self-motivated student to learn out how to use them. The best and brightest who expect to be coddled by their college may not succeed at a less personal state university. So, why hand them money that should rightfully go to a student who really wants to be there?
About the Author
Contact Stuart Nachbar at Educated Quest, a blog on education politics, policy and technology or read about his first book, The Sex Ed Chronicle, a novel on education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, at Sex Ed Chronicles.
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