Ask Mitt Romney to name his signature education initiative as governor of Massachusetts and he'll likely answer that it was the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program. The scholarship, established in 2004, covers tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for students who score in the top 25 percent of their district on the state's 10th-grade math and English standardized tests.
"I got more hugs on Adams Scholarship day than I did at Christmas,” Romney said in a May speech about education. “And parents—more than once—told me that they had been worried they would not be able to afford college and that the scholarship would make a difference. Here in America, every child deserves a chance. It shouldn't be reserved for the fortunate few.”
The cost of college is one of the major barriers for many poor students, so it seems logical that paying for their tuition would help more of them graduate from college. But research into the Adams Scholarship and the 12 others like it across the country suggests that these programs do little to improve college access because they typically go to students who already plan to attend college. If anything, these researchers say, the scholarships can widen existing income and racial gaps in college attendance.
A study released this summer by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found that Massachusetts students were likely to use the scholarship to attend a state school with fewer resources than private schools they might have gone to otherwise. The result? Students who use the scholarship actually take longer to graduate—and they are less likely to graduate at all.
“This is a very unusual example of a situation in which we make money available to students, and they actually end up worse off,” said report co-author Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.
Merit aid programs emerged in the early 1990s as a well-intentioned, politically popular attempt to help more people go to college. Even as state budgets have been slashed, the majority of these scholarships have survived.
They typically have three goals: to provide extra incentive for students to work hard in high school; to keep the best and brightest students in-state, thereby avoiding a state brain drain; and to improve college enrollment rates. And it’s not clear they’re succeeding at any of the three.
There’s little evidence that the promise of financial aid boosts high-school achievement, Goodman said. While some states have had success in keeping their highest-performing students in state for college, that doesn’t mean they stay after earning a degree.
And although there is some conflicting research on the topic, many of the studies that have been done on merit aid find that it does not have a large impact on college attendance, particularly for minority and low-income students.
Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education who has studied merit aid programs extensively, has found the money is more likely to flow to white or Asian students and those with a higher socioeconomic status.