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Examining Merit Scholarships

April 16, 2013

Last month, The New York Times summarized a recent report completed by Caroline B. Hoxby and Christopher Avery on the failure of our most competitive colleges and universities to enroll students from poor families in America.  Hoxby and Avery’s research indicated that “only 34 percent of high-achieving high school students in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.”  This failure to identify, recruit and enroll low income students has profound implications for these students and their families.  Unaware of the possibilities of studying away from home, these students, this report indicates, enroll in local colleges “with fewer resources and lower graduation rates than selective colleges.”

The report serves as a reminder that the world of private education continues to fall short on one of its most important responsibilities in a democratic society:  to open up doors of opportunity to Americans from all socioeconomic classes.  For the past 25 years, colleges and universities have embraced the goal of serving the public good, but this data indicates that our current system only reinforces the disparity between rich and poor in our country.

I cite this report as I field questions about the use of merit scholarships in many independent schools.  We in the private sector have the resources to create exemplary schools and programs designed for the challenges of the 21st century, but we know that our tuition levels make our form of education far too expensive for the vast majority of American families.  Whether we have large endowments, or no endowments at all, we develop our financial models through a balance between tuition, annual giving and (if applicable) endowment draws.  None of our models can promise unlimited financial aid, and therefore every dollar we can muster for scholarships should be spent on students and families needing support.

Merit scholarships are quite different from those associated with financial aid, for the merit grant promises a student a scholarship regardless of his/her family’s socioeconomic background.  Schools use merit aid to gain an admissions advantage with students they very much want to enroll.  It is a strategy to improve the academic quality of a student body or to strengthen a school’s ability to earn a matriculation contract or to break into a new admissions market.  Yet the fact remains that schools could easily identify tremendous students from modest backgrounds and circumstances to qualify for these kinds of scholarships.

The very use of the term “merit” scholarship is misleading and problematic:  the phrase implies that one form of financial aid awards merit while the other (based on financial need) does not.  It implies that one student in a secondary school has somehow achieved merit while his/her classmates have not.  It implies that the pursuit of excellence needs to be accompanied by a financial reward.

I believe independent schools in the 21st century have an obligation to extend themselves to provide educational opportunity to a broad and diverse student population.  To achieve this crucial goal, we need to pool financial aid and merit aid into one comprehensive commitment:  to make our schools affordable for as many students and parents as possible.

We should ask families to pay what they can, both to build a remarkably diverse community and to make sure that we have resources to open doors for students from low income backgrounds.  There was a time when private education existed only to prepare the affluent for positions of leadership.  Now, we promise an education designed to celebrate the full democracy of America.  We should transform merit aid and embrace the full power of financial aid.

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