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Colleges Reconsider Merit-Based Scholarships

September 22, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

Although need-based financial aid has remained steady at most colleges, some schools are looking at their merit-based scholarship programs as the next place to cut if budgets continue to shrink. Merit-based scholarships, which do not usually consider need, rely on GPA and standardized test scores as measures of students' academic achievement and potential for excellence on the college level.

A criticism has been that the awards go disproportionately to students of wealthy families who may have the resources to better prepare for tests and assistance outside of the classroom. However, cuts in merit-based scholarship programs may also affect the middle class, a group of students who may receive some funding, but due to their parents' combined incomes will receive far more in student loans than scholarships and grants compared to lower-income applicants. Perhaps that's how it should work, but middle-class families with steady incomes don't always have the resources left over to contribute much to college savings accounts like 529 Plans, especially in a tough economy.

Should merit-based scholarships then also consider some degree of need before disbursement? An article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education described several schools looking to trim their merit-based scholarship programs, especially those that rely on state funding to exist. In Florida, the Bright Futures Scholarship Program will stop funding full public-college tuition in favor of a set amount based on credit hours. In West Virginia, Promise Scholarship awards will max out at $4,750 rather than the former full rides. In Michigan, a state that has been hit particularly hard in this economy, their own Promise Scholarship program may be cut entirely. The University of Texas recently announced it would no longer be sponsoring National Merit, a popular national scholarship program that students qualify for based on standardized test scores. Students there had been able to receive $13,000 over four years. The university promises an increase in need-based financial aid to assist those students who had been receiving National Merit aid but who also qualified for many of the federal need-based financial aid programs.

>With a limited amount of funding coming from both the state and federal level, schools have to decide how best to approach financial aid. The trend has been to place a higher importance on need, as the rationale is that many students who had been receiving merit-based scholarships would be able to afford college anyway, or be eligible for outside academic scholarships. And those who would have applied for need-based financial aid before the recession are only in need of more aid today.

One school is taking the Good Samaritan approach. At Pennsylvania State University's Schreyer Honors College, parents and the college bound who did not fill out financial aid forms but received the school's $3,500 merit-based scholarships for gaining admittance to the honors college are being asked to consider allocating that money instead to accepted students with a higher level financial need. In short, the money goes to students who really need it. Should it be more complicated than that?


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