Layla Granville has to take two buses, the Green Line and walk 13 minutes to get to her college classes. She lives in Canaryville on Chicago’s South Side and is in her freshman year at Dominican University in the western suburbs.
It’s a long, two-hour commute, but Granville uses the time to read fantasy novels, her favorite book genre.
“I love strong female characters,” Granville said. “Like the one I’m reading now: It’s like a female assassin, and she’s young and she’s the best one. I’m like, ‘You’re amazing.’ ”
The 19-year-old is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in physics. She wants to become a skin health researcher so she can help her sister, who has eczema. But distance, and a lack of a working car, aren’t the only obstacles Granville had to overcome to get to Dominican.
“I didn’t know how I was going to pay for college,” Granville said. “I [knew] my family couldn’t help pay for it.”
The number of Black students in Illinois enrolled in college has dropped by more than a third over the past decade, and Black students like Granville often cite money as the biggest hurdle standing between them and a college degree, according to research from Gallup.
For Granville, Dominican offered a lifeline: a scholarship program for students from low-income families interested in science. Unlike many scholarships, this one did not require a high grade point average. These kinds of need-based scholarships are one way of making sure more Black students can sign up — and finish school — but the financial aid is becoming less of a priority for many schools.
Instead, both public and private colleges have poured money over the last 20 years into so-called merit aid for students with high grade point averages and test scores, who may not need scholarships to get a degree. Research from the think tank New America on four-year public universities found that $2 out of every $5 of aid given by these schools between 2001 and 2017 went to non-needy students — students the federal government determined were able to afford college without financial aid. Spending on merit aid at more than 300 public universities nearly tripled in that same time period.
Marie Bigham, director of ACCEPT, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in college admissions, said instead of putting money behind full rides for low-income students like Granville, some schools are offering discounts on tuition to compete for high-achieving students who have lots of college options.
“It’s like the Bed Bath and Beyond coupon,” Bigham said. “Everyone gets them in the mail, right? And so is it just that everything’s overpriced by 20%?”
Bigham said it’s especially a problem because minority and low-income students are getting squeezed out.
“The students with the higher GPAs and the higher test scores … are going to come from better-funded schools,” she said. “Chances are likely that they have more family wealth and fewer barriers.”
College leaders defend the strategy, arguing that, even with merit aid, wealthy students pay more tuition and subsidize spots for students who can’t afford to pay any tuition.
But researchers say the increased spending on merit aid has mainly benefited white, wealthy students — and reduced the percentage of low-income and Black students on campus. An economist at Wake Forest University found that, after introducing a merit aid program, the share of low-income students at private colleges dropped by 2% to 6%. The percentage of Black students also dropped at these schools.
Still, colleges continue handing out scholarships for students with good grades.
Akil Bello, director of the college admissions advocacy group FairTest, points to a recent decision by Illinois State University to replace a scholarship for minority and first-generation applicants with one reserved for students with a 3.7 GPA or higher.
“They straight up racism’d the scholarship,” Bello said. “They went from a scholarship for underrepresented minorities to a scholarship that guarantees it goes to white kids — white private school kids with the most money.”
Illinois State spokesperson Eric Jome disagrees. He said the school is using best practices, such as tying merit aid to GPA instead of test scores, to ensure the decreases in low-income and Black students that have occurred at other schools do not occur at the Bloomington-Normal campus.
Jome said the new scholarship program has more than 300 applications from students who are racially diverse, low-income or the first in their families to go to college. He expects more of these students to receive scholarships than in previous years.
Bello is skeptical. It’s not that Black and low-income students are not capable of getting good grades, he said. It’s that they are more likely to attend a high school with fewer supports and to have other obligations competing for their time.
The Federal Reserve reports that Black families, on average, hold a small fraction of the wealth that white families do. Black students are more likely to have to borrow to cover tuition and to juggle full-time jobs with class.
“Guess what?” Bello said. “Poor kids who have to take a part-time job are going to have a lower GPA.”
When Granville was in high school, she worked at a Chili’s restaurant on the weekends. Her GPA was low and put her out of the running for most scholarships, she said.
And for Granville, getting a scholarship meant the difference not in where she went to college — but whether or not she could go at all.
That’s why she’s so grateful for the scholarship from Dominican.
“I don’t even have to look at my financial aid thing,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about it.”