Universities should increase merit scholarships, but end athletic ones, plus stop giving breaks to legacies

One of the minor threads in the vast patchwork quilt called anti-intellectualism in the mass media is the assault on merit scholarships for college students.  For example, the New York Times used today’s report on the effort of the University of Oklahoma to attract National Merit Scholarship winners to treat the practice of giving these high academic achievers as controversial. To quote the article, penned by Richard Peréz-Peña, “Oklahoma’s program touches on a long-running argument within higher education, about the role of ‘merit aid’ — scholarships that schools give on the basis of credentials like grades, test scores or musical skills — versus the aid that nearly all schools give on the basis of a student’s financial need.”

Interestingly enough, the writer cites school officials at Michigan State and Texas A&M as opponents to academic scholarships. These two schools are well known for funding the minor league training of a number of professional football and basketball players. But then again, Oklahoma also gives a lot of money to star athletes.

Inputting “against merit scholarships” into the Google machine will yield hundreds of other articles arguing against giving scholarships to student who are high achievers but don’t need the money.

I can speak with some personal experience on this issue, as seven years ago Northeastern University awarded my son Ezra a full merit scholarship covering room, board and tuition for four years.  Although his mother and I both make incomes that disqualified us from receiving any need-based assistance, I never felt bad about my son taking Northeastern’s money. Ezra maintained a high grade point average in the most advanced academic courses that his urban high school offered, scored highly in his SATs and was involved in a slew of extra-curricular activities. (FYI, he won a number of university and national scholarships for his academic performance at Northeastern and is now getting his PhD in structural engineering at Stanford, funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship.)

By the way, just at his high school alone I knew of at least 10 other students with credentials similar to Ezra’s—different skills and different activities, but all showing a clear demonstration of talent, drive and creativity.  Whatever one wants to say about the overall decline of secondary school education in the U.S., no one can dispute the fact that the best students today are far more educated and skilled than the top dogs of any previous generation.  And that there are more of them now.

To attract top-flight students, Northeastern offers merit scholarships, just as a large number of universities offer room, board and tuition to attract athletes who will help their teams ascend the football and basketball rankings. If you take the scholarship from my son, then take away the athletic scholarship from the suburban kid who went to sleep-away football camp every summer.  At least the academic scholarship has something to do with the mission of higher education. 

The scandal is not that a well-off kid got a scholarship. 

The scandal is that there are too few merit scholarships for the number of deserving students.   Instead of ending merit aid, as many colleges are threatening to do, merit and need scholarships should be expanded and athletic scholarships should be completely eliminated.   

Another scandal is that too many talented high school students in poor school districts do not get the same opportunities to learn and excel that the kids in richer school districts and independent private schools get.  Universities would do more for fairness if they used their enormous resources to make access to educational opportunity available to all children.

And yet another scandal is the fact that too many high school students end up going to college when instead they should be in vocational or career training.  While 70% of all high school graduates go to college, a far lower percentage of all jobs require a four-year college education.  That great disconnect leads to college graduation rates of about 50% and a whole lot of young people with a lot of debt and nothing to show for it.

And how about the large number of places reserved for legacies and athletes? A study a few years ago showed that both these groups get bigger breaks on their SAT scores than minorities do. There’s something scandalous when my son’s truly brilliant chess buddy complains that legacies hold back the class and impede his education at one of America’s very most prestigious universities.

Yes, there’s a lot to fix in higher education, and not just in the process by which high school seniors are selected.  I don’t think that ending merit scholarships to deserving kids belongs on higher education’s agenda for change, and it befuddles me why media outlets like the Times want to keep it there. 

In youth chess, my son learned that there is nothing wrong about giving a trophy to the winner, but that it is unfair if a deserving kid doesn’t have a chance to compete. That’s the real problem for higher education, and one that not just colleges, but school districts and all levels of government should seek to solve.

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