A student walks to class on Mississippi Valley State University’s campus in Itta Bena. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

What do we even mean by merit?

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‘True Merit’ and a Debate Over Aid

We told you a few weeks ago about a big proposed change our reporter in Mississippi has been examining related to how the state awards financial aid. 

If the plan is adopted, awards to the state’s lowest-income students would decrease by hundreds, in some cases thousands, of dollars while awards to middle- and upper-middle income students generally would increase. That approach, wrote Molly Minta, who works for our partner Mississippi Today, puts Mississippi at odds with how other states are giving out aid, with many of them moving in recent years more toward need-based systems.

One of her recent stories dug deeper into the debate by highlighting how one university president, Mark Keenum at Mississippi State, has talked about the question of who should benefit from this state money. One worry he voiced: If the state does not start providing more financial aid to “high-achieving” students, they will go elsewhere for college.

“I wish we could come up with a way that we could reward true merit across a wider spectrum than we do,” Keenum said, “all the way up to that 36-ACT student, who everybody in the country wants and who we desperately have got to keep in the state of Mississippi if we can.” 

“True merit.” His quote got us thinking about what exactly that might entail. And how even using the word “merit” in some of these conversations could distort the debate. 

In Mississippi, at least, merit mostly means ACT scores. Under the proposed new program, the minimum ACT score that a student would need to qualify for any financial aid would be raised to 18 from the 15 that is currently needed. For students in a state that only recently cracked an average ACT score of 18, Molly pointed out, that’s a significant barrier.

And if you’re using the ACT as a measuring stick for merit it means you are saying that, on average, whiter students, richer students, and those with college-educated parents have more of it.

This whole discussion of merit — what it even means, how it drives who gets to go to college, how it shapes people’s college dreams — is threaded through so many debates in higher education.

It was at the center of our podcast series Bootstraps. And the concepts of merit and prestige and elitism are embedded in one of the most-read higher ed stories this week: a Wall Street Journal analysis of the huge debts and low salaries of graduates from USC’s social-work master’s program. 

The idea that this is a prestigious place to study was part of the lure, the Journal said, and USC used its status-symbol image to enroll thousands of students, often with aggressive tactics. 

“You think of USC as one of those schools where rich people go or geniuses go,” one program graduate, Jalen Prayer, said. 

It turns out that prestige alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Recent USC social-work graduates who took out federal loans borrowed a median of $112,000, the Wall Street Journal reported. Half of them were earning $52,000 or less per year two years later. For Prayer, she’s earning more, about $80,000 as a high-school social worker in California. But she also owes about $224,000 in federal student loans, including undergraduate debt.

+ Read Molly’s latest coverage.

++ Check out Bootstraps, our recent podcast collaboration with EdSurge.

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Work Shift: Do we know what jobs are in high demand? Modern technology has dramatically changed hiring and the way the country tracks labor market demand. But how much does data really tell us about today’s in-demand jobs?

In The Job: A college-wide approach to accelerating student careers. Spelman College and the nonprofit Braven announced a new partnership that will allow every Spelman sophomore to participate in a project focused on excelling after college.

In El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso professors and students feel the effects of halted study abroad. The suspension of programs in recent years means that students have lost educational and personal growth opportunities. And professors have faced obstacles to conducting necessary research.

In latitude(s): What Build Back Better means for international education. Fee increases could be coming for international students, but there’s good news for DACA recipients in a social-spending bill.

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