Should Rich Kids Get Most of the Scholarships?

Call it the Cycle of Money. Wealthier families push their children to study, study, study, expecting top grades across the board. These students snag most of the merit-based scholarships, which now includes nearly 30 percent of state aid. Though finances were never really a barrier to education for them, the money sways some of these high performers to enroll at a state school instead of somewhere else, the schools bump up their average GPA, get more money to give to still more rich students, and the poor are, more and more, left out of the loop.

Why? Well, advanced programs, academic extra-curriculars, high-end computers and tutors when they need them might help. But at the very least, it makes a heck of a big difference to your scholarship chances if you don’t have to work 25 hours a week. That’s the story Catherine Rampell has laid out in her provocatively-titled NYT column, “Freebies for the Rich,” and it’s a frightening one.

The problem is we’re looking at just one more aspect of a yawning inequity splitting the nation in two. Need-based aid targets capable students that may not get a post-secondary education otherwise, while merit-based aid is a recruitment campaign: it overwhelmingly goes to students who will be attending college no matter what, and merely encourages them to attend one college over another.

It sounds good in theory. The most capable, talented individuals are sought out and given what they need to meet their potential, regardless of their background. Even born with nothing, any of us can “make it” if we work hard. But the reality is that SAT scores correlate highly with household income, and pretty much no one in the ghetto is getting a full-ride based on their grades alone. So what’s being accomplished by the growing proportion of state aid earmarked to merit-based scholarships?

State schools love merit-based aid because they can use it to snag kids that might have gone to private schools, raising the school’s profile and, perhaps, resulting in more alumni donations later on. Wealthy parents love it since it’s money in the bank.

But this money isn’t really doing any good for the state (or country) in the long run, since it’s not leading to a net increase in the number of educated people. It isn’t “aiding” the poorer families whose performance and success would gain the most from some financial support. Surprisingly, it’s not even good for the students who receive this money, as their performance drops when they “slum it” at the less elite school offering them financial backing.

Perhaps most important, it’s not exactly about merit, is it? On the whole, it’s more like “life circumstance-based aid”. I was a little jarred when I read that opening anecdote, and the poorer student was quoted as saying he thought his friend, who had a full ride through both college and medical school, was no smarter than him, as I remember thinking the same thing several times throughout my own secondary and post-secondary career.

As a high school student, I also worked 25-30 hours per week, and while I maintained strong grades, I couldn’t compete for the big scholarships. Likewise, in my university faculty (physics), I watched some of my classmates go on ski vacations once or twice each school year, while I held down a full-time job and upped my hours during every holiday break. Looking back on it now, there were certain career paths I didn’t even remotely consider as options because the schooling was too expensive, but for my carefree classmates, every door was open. Were they more “merit-worthy” than I was?

An early advantage or set-back can have a huge effect on a person’s educational path, and therefore their entire life. Unfortunately, it seems the trend now is moving more and more toward conferring advantages to those who already have several.