Romney’s original proposal called for a scholarship program that would go to the top quartile of test takers statewide. After critics argued the plan would heavily favor middle- and high-income students, the scholarship was amended to be given out on a district-by-district basis. Even so, minority and low-income students have qualified at much lower rates than their peers.
The same is true in other states. In Michigan, for instance, 31 percent of all high-school seniors scored well enough on the state’s standardized exam to earn a merit scholarship, but just 7.1 percent of African-Americans met the threshold in 2000, prompting a lawsuit from civil rights groups. The scholarship was ultimately discontinued due to lack of funding in 2006.
“Most of the money goes to subsidize kids from upper-income, upper-middle-income [families] who would have been going to college anyway,” Heller said. “If the goal of states is to get more students to college, then merit scholarships are not very efficient.”
The main reason many of these programs fail to close access gaps, according to Goodman and Heller, is that the criteria used to determine scholarship eligibility—typically GPA and test scores—correlate with income.
Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program, one of the oldest and largest merit aid programs in the country, has doled out more than $6.6 billion to nearly 1.6 million students since 1993. To qualify, students must earn a 3.0 GPA in high school. If so, they get a free ride to an in-state public school. One study found, however, that 96 percent of students who used the HOPE scholarship were already planning to go to college.
At the same time, many of the students who meet the 3.0 high-school GPA criterion in Georgia are not prepared for college. About half of Georgia’s HOPE recipients lose their scholarships between freshman and sophomore year for failing to keep up the same GPA in college. (Most programs have a similar stipulation for scholarship renewal.) Only 30 percent keep the scholarship for all four years. Research has also found that HOPE students are more likely to withdraw from classes or take a lighter course load once in college.
And the Massachusetts scholarship isn’t as generous as it first sounds. Romney’s program covers tuition at $1,700 per year. But it does not cover fees, which can be several thousand dollars more in Massachusetts, or room and board. Goodman’s report found that students who earned the Adams Scholarship were likely to be swayed by the money despite the program’s relatively small impact on overall cost.
At Massachusetts’ Brockton High School, more than half of the 264 Adams Scholarship students eligible for the money in the class of 2012 decided to use it. Counselor Catherine Leger, noting that about 70 percent of her students are low-income, said that she promotes using the scholarship to help mitigate tuition costs.
But many students who decide to go to state schools, which often have limited funding, are turning down higher-quality options, Goodman found. The schools they end up attending have fewer resources, reflected in measures such as student-teacher ratios, and they have lower-quality advising, which means that students get less academic support and are more likely to be shut out of classes that become too full. “The student may not appreciate that those factors will affect their ability to complete degrees,” Goodman said.
So how should states help more students go to college? Goodman suggests spending funds that currently go to merit scholarships on improving state universities instead or creating new scholarship programs that factor in need as well as merit to provide a targeted incentive. The current programs were a well-intentioned idea, but it’s time to re-examine the data.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.