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Higher education's shame

Take a good look at my colleague Jenna Johnson's story on merit scholarships. This is the achilles heel of our otherwise splendid higher education system, and should be getting far more attention than it does. She says from 2003 to 2007 "public research universities increased the amount of aid to students whose parents make at least $115,000 a year by 28 percent," according to the non-profit group Education Trust.

I have taken on those who say bright low-income college applicants are being frozen out of college. That is not true. But it is still a struggle for many of them to get enough money together, and to stay when their families encounter financial or health crises. Merit aid seems to be motivated, at least in part, by a lust for higher ratings in U.S. News and World Report. Is that the right way to go?

Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 15, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  merit scholarships; merit aid; more aid for affluent students; Education Trust  
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Comments

"Merit aid seems to be motivated, at least in part, by a lust for higher ratings in U.S. News and World Report."

Ummmmmm, seriously? Support? Come on, Jay -- you're a better reporter than that.

Here's an alternate scenario. "Need-based" aid is determined entirely by the FAFSA. That would be the same form that declared that my mom could "afford" to pay $5K of my tuition -- on a salary of $11-22K/yr. Luckily for me, my college recognized the stupidity and gave me additional merit aid to fill the gap.

Think that's not an issue for people making over $100K? Look at how much tuition has increased of late -- heck, even UMCP, which is "affordable" as schools go, has increased out of state tuition from $17K in 2003 to $24K now. That's a 40% increase. Salaries haven't grown 40% over that time. And FAFSA "need" determinations sure haven't.

Every time you raise tuition more than wages, true "affordability" goes down -- and by a lot more than the FAFSA determinations say it has. Which means you increase the number of kids from higher-income families who need some kind of help to fill the gap between FAFSA and reality -- maybe their parents could have managed $17K, but can't manage $24K.

Truth is, every college very carefully weighs its tuition decisions: the more they charge, the more kids will no longer be able to afford the full fare -- but the more they will take in from the wealthier kids who can still pay full freight. They make these decisions intentionally, with full knowledge that every increase in tuition will require additional "merit" aid even to maintain the same class composition they have now. Over the past decade, most colleges have consistently concluded that they were better off increasing tuition and making up the difference, where necessary, by giving additional aid. So it should not be at all surprising that tuition increases correspond to higher non-FAFSA aid grants.

The alternative -- making everything "need-based" -- would result in a completely polarized class. Students in very low-income groups, who FAFSA concluded had no ability to pay, could still afford to go. Students in high-income groups could also afford. But middle- and upper-middle-class students would be shut out.

Posted by: laura33 | January 15, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Taken solely from the perspective of the poor student who is losing out because aid is being funneled to wealthier students this criticism makes sense. However, there are several other perspectives which cloud the issue.
1. Many public universities are in a dollars battle with private universities. They battle for research grants. They battle to attract the most qualified students. They battle for USN&WR rankings.
2. Even wealthier students (all things being equal or nearly equal) are going to go schools that offer them the best dollar value. If public university doesn't come across with the money all but the wealthiest students will choose a comparable private university where the net cost is less.
3. Public universities are funded with our taxpayer dollars. In the abstract it might be nice to suggest that we should make sure our neediest students can get to university. In reality (and particularly during tough economic times) those generous sentiments dry up.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | January 16, 2010 5:42 AM | Report abuse

1. I'd like to see the Clinton era idea of providing loans with income-contingent repayment schedules for students to attend college be at least piloted.

2. I could support limiting such loans to the two years in a community college. Most taxpayers (c. 75%/?) were unable to afford a four-year college and I hesitate to take tax dollars from them to cover a high cost education for others. The idea that a 4-year college education should be an entitlement seems excessive to me. Countries that approach that (many in Europe) often provide inferior educations in too-large classes to uninterested students.

3. I agree with Patrick that state schools should be allowed to compete for excellent students by giving merit aid. Excellent students have the ability to improve the value of education for other students by pushing them to "raise their games". I could see limiting the percentage of merit aid recipients to 10 to 20% of the each class.

4. I also agree with Patrick that students (increasingly) focus on net value of the educational experience in choosing colleges. I'd like to see even more Kiplinger-type value assessments.

Posted by: mct210 | January 16, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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