About

We’re working to transform local reporting on college by combining the sophistication of a national newsroom that knows a topic very deeply with the engagement of a community newsroom that knows a place very deeply.

The role of race in merit aid in the South

Sherry Paramore helped Florida high school students prepare for college. Photo Credit: Octavio Jones
The Intersection
Sign up for the newsletter

A biweekly newsletter about race and higher education. By Naomi Harris.

Subscription received!

Please check your email to confirm your newsletter subscription.

Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!


Who ‘Deserves’ Free Tuition?

In many Southern states, students with good grades and high standardized test scores can qualify for generous state scholarships that provide full or partial tuition.

Those popular, merit-aid programs began cropping up several decades ago, in the 1990s, and I wanted to examine the kind of impact they’ve had. Most states don’t distribute financial aid this way.

In fact, 30 of them spend less than 10 percent on non-need based grant aid. That makes these Southern states, where 90 percent or more of the financial aid is given regardless of need, stand out even more.

To learn more about what the enduring presence of these scholarships has meant, I first had to find people who worked closely with these programs.

Early on, I came across Sherry Paramore.

Sherry spent three years at a nonprofit group in Orlando, Fla., that provided students with mentorship, tutoring, and extracurricular activities. The goal was to show students what they could do after high school graduation with college preparation and career aspirations.

Sherry and her former team at Elevate Orlando helped nearly 200 high-school students apply for college. Many of them were the first in their families to go. Many were also Black. Many of her students were accepted into college. None of them received the state’s Bright Futures scholarship, the main ticket the state created for educational opportunity.

“I really want to call attention to the fact that we are excluding almost an entire population of students from being able to get the Bright Futures scholarship,” Paramore told me. “They’re the ones who need it the most.”

Source: National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs

Bright Futures requires students get at least a 3.0 GPA and 1210 SAT score. For Paramore’s students, the biggest challenge was hitting the SAT mark. But it wasn’t just the students in Orlando.

Since Bright Futures was created, in 1997, no more than 7 percent of recipients have been Black, in a state where 17 percent of the population is. And this disparity is not isolated to Florida.

The merit-aid blueprint

In my reporting, I also focused on the HOPE scholarship in Georgia and the TOPS scholarship in Louisiana. I talked with dozens of experts, students, counselors, state officials, and higher education advocates to understand how race plays a role in merit-aid systems.

When lawmakers shifted toward merit scholarships, they talked a lot about keeping the “best and brightest” at home. But how do you measure that? And who does that end up helping the most?

“Students of all races and incomes can benefit from merit-based aid programs. However, the issue is that the benefits of the programs disproportionately skew toward wealthier, whiter student populations that are likely to attend and finish college anyway,” said Tom Harnisch, the vice president for government relations at SHEEO (State Higher Education Executive Officers), a national organization.

That’s in part because students from wealthier backgrounds tend to attend higher-quality schools and have access to other resources, like test preparation, that help them meet the merit-aid criteria.

In Georgia, the HOPE program has done more over its 30 years to influence where students go to college more so than who goes, researchers have found.

Jennifer Lee of the Georgia Policy & Budget Institute also found big gaps in who received a full-tuition scholarship. Only 6 percent of Zell Miller scholars, as that full-tuition version of the merit aid is known, were Black while 70 percent were white.

The problem? The scholarship program does little to address the many years of discrimination in housing, employment, and the financial section, she said. As a result of these societal challenges, Jennifer says there are huge income and wealth gaps in Georgia and across the country. And the merit aid programs are only perpetuating those.

Influence of wealth

In Louisiana, too, the state awards most of its aid based on merit, through TOPS. In fact, the state is spending more than eight times as much on TOPS ($331 million last year) as it does on GO Grants, its need-based program (which got $41 million).

And there, too, there are racial gaps in who benefits from TOPS. Nearly three-quarters of recipients of the state scholarship are white. Only about half of first-time entering freshmen in the state are.

And last year another data point about TOPS made headlines: reports showed the state paid for more than 11,000 students whose parents are millionaires to attend college.

Kim Hunter Reed, the state’s commissioner of higher education, acknowledged the connection between family income and TOPS. To her, the solution lies in supporting both need and merit-based programs.

Student thoughts

Ask college students how states should give out financial aid and most say it should be based more on students’ financial need than on academic performance.

Seventy-one percent of the 500 college students surveyed this year by College Pulse, an online survey and analytics company, for Open Campus said states should focus more on financial need. Just 17 percent said states should instead focus more on academic performance. The rest said they weren’t sure.

Their responses differed significantly by race. Among nonwhite students, even more — 80 percent — said states should focus on financial need. That compares with 65 percent of white students.

Read my full story, which was co-published by Open Campus and The Washington Post.

College-going in California

Photo Credit: Salgu Wissmath

Figuring out college can be intimidating. At times, it comes with a large price tag. There are program requirements that feel so unrelated to actual majors. New responsibilities, from time management to organizational skills, can be overwhelming.

We’re spending this year talking with Californians about their relationships with college. How do they navigate the complexities? What challenges confront students from marginalized communities? How do people overcome barriers? What helps them get through?

In California, almost one in 10 of Hispanic residents have a bachelor’s degree. For Black Californians, it is just over one in four.

For this set of profiles, I went to Riverside — where half of the population is Hispanic and fewer than one in four residents has a bachelor’s degree. (Across California, about 35 percent of people do.)

I hopped in a car rental with a colleague and talked with people about their experiences with college. Here are their stories.

I talked to students like Aleah Medina, 21, who dealt with an overwhelming schedule. She’d work at Riverside City College, then help out at her parents’ restaurant and by the time she got back home to even start her classwork she was exhausted.

I talked to students who decided, at least temporarily, college was not for them because the space was overwhelmingly white.

“What was hardest for me was coming from Southern California and then being in a space like Seattle and not seeing diversity around me,” says Lindsey Potts. “It felt like I was in a different world. I dropped out.”

Potts found her way back to college and is now pursuing her Ph.D. at Columbia University.

In Mississippi, the board of trustees voted on a new tenure policy that could target outspoken or marginalized faculty. Molly Minta at Mississippi reports on the history behind that new policy.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide on the role race plays in college admissions. Kirk Carapezza at WGBH reports on what alternatives colleges might consider on diversity.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

Related Posts
Read More

A platform for first-gen students

Over the past two years, Zipporah Osei offered readers personal insight into the experience of being a first-generation college student through her Open Campus newsletter, First Gen. Here's what she learned.