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A devotion to merit aid in the South

The Weekly Dispatch
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The impact of a generation of merit aid

In Mississippi last fall, a big debate emerged over student aid.

The state sought to overhaul how it gives out money for college, creating a new program that would base awards on a combination of need and merit, as measured by a composite ACT score. The Mississippi One Grant, as it’s known, would replace the three grant programs Mississippi has now. One of those, known as HELP, pays for four years of tuition for low-income students.

Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, has been covering the debate and what the policy would mean for state residents. The bottom line? Black and low-income students on average would get much less aid under the new approach. And white students would get slightly more.

Molly’s reporting prompted us to take a new look at student-aid policies across the South. Mississippi is just the latest state to weigh a shift toward measures of merit.

A generation ago, state after state created new merit scholarships and began distributing the bulk of their aid based on academic metrics, like grades and test scores, instead of family income.

Thirty years later, Naomi Harris found, large gaps remain in who those programs benefit, especially by race. The rhetoric from their advocates has been that they expand opportunity equally, she writes, but the reality is that they have not.

Most states actually don’t distribute their aid this way. Thirty 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. 

One thing that struck me as I was working with Naomi on the story was how explicitly race was part of the conversation from the beginning.

When Zell Miller proposed the HOPE scholarship in Georgia in the 1990s, he touted it as “the most all-inclusive scholarship program to be found in any of the 50 states.” What the governor meant: it would also help white, middle-class voters — not just the people those key political constituents might associate with government aid. 

HOPE would be “not only for those who are minorities or who come from lower-income families,” the Southern Democrat made a point to say in his 1992 State of the State speech, “but also those middle-income families who are devastated with the cost of education and training beyond high school.”

Whiter and wealthier residents of these Southern states have tended to benefit the most. What Naomi found:

  • In Georgia, only 6 percent of the recipients of the state’s full-tuition scholarship are Black and 70 percent are white. Among in-state undergraduates, 29 percent are Black and 49 percent are white.
  • In Louisiana, nearly three-quarters of recipients of TOPS are white. Only about half of first-time entering freshmen in the state are.
  • In Florida, where 17 percent of the population is Black, no more than 7 percent of Bright Futures recipients have been in any year since the program started. 

Over time, the merit scholarships have mostly become baked in. Part of their popularity has stemmed from how they are financed. In states like Florida and Georgia they are primarily funded by state lotteries, allowing proponents to pitch the programs to taxpayers as if they are getting something for nothing.

But, of course, someone’s paying for it. And the bulk of lottery tickets are bought by people who are lower income, have lower levels of education, and are nonwhite, says Jonathan Cohen, a program officer at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the author of a book about state lotteries.

Merit scholarships are “doubly regressive,” he told me. “Poor, Black people are buying tickets and rich, white kids are getting the benefits.”

To illustrate the disparities, he likes to tell the story of the “HOPE Mobile.” Georgia’s white, suburban parents — suddenly able to send their children to college for next to nothing — took money they had saved for tuition and used it to buy them cars. In 1994 and 1995, HOPE, one study found, was directly responsible for rising car sales in the richest 25 percent of Georgia counties.

— Sara Hebel

+ Read Naomi’s story, which was co-published by The Washington Post.

++ Read more of Molly’s coverage, including her story about the university president who wants the state to do more to reward “true merit.”

+++ Sign up for Naomi’s newsletter about race and equity in higher ed.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

‘We need it’: How one custodian is fighting fear to get a pay raise at U. of Southern Mississippi
‘We need it’: How one custodian is fighting fear to get a pay raise at U. of Southern Mississippi Janice Jones makes about $10 an hour, the lowest wage on campus. 

In The Job: How to support low-income students in online programs. The evolving approach of hybrid colleges that provide in-person coaching and other place-based support is worth watching, Paul Fain writes. Sign up for his newsletter.

In Cleveland: Cuyahoga Community College names a new president

In California: ICYMI, read a new set of stories from our series, Postcards from the college journey

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