What merit scholarships say about us

Who should the college gates keep out?

Who should these gates keep out?

The College Board released data on Tuesday that shows substantial increases in tuition at public colleges in the country last year.  Prices increased by an average of 6.5% last year, despite low inflation rates and a negative consumer price index.  The tuition hike is yet another symptom of the state budgetary crisis, which have resulted in cuts in higher education spending.  This created shortfalls for state universities and colleges that must then be made up by increased payments from students.

The budgetary crisis has led some states to reconsider their merit scholarship programs.  More than 15 states currently have scholarships for the state’s public universities awarded according to  student grades, class ranks, and standardized testing scores.  While merit scholarships seem like a fairly standard and uncontroversial practice, at least for private universities, critics charge that public universities ought not to have them, because these programs drain financial resources away from students who have greater financial needs.

The argument is simple: recipients of merit scholarships–those with good grades, good SAT scores, etc.–tend to be students from more affluent families, who are more able to afford college and who would likely receive private scholarships anyway.  The limited resources should be saved for students who truly need it, who would not be able to attend college without it.

This type of criticism brings out an important debate about the educational mission of public universities.  It also reveals a tension between research universities and teaching-oriented schools such as community colleges.

My co-author on these blogs, Adam, has already written about the function of the universities as producers of knowledge.  The reality, however, is more complicated.  Realistically speaking, relatively few of the public universities in this country actually engage in the exalted activity of knowledge production.  Out of the nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., only 150 institutions receive more than $40 million in federal research grants.  Among those, about 60 universities grant more than half of all the doctoral degrees in the country.  30 of those are public universities.  We can assume that knowledge-production goes on mostly in those large research universities.

The overwhelming number of colleges do not “produce” knowledge.  Their mission is more mundane: teaching the 18.2 million students that enroll in an undergraduate program each year.  There are, for example, nearly 1,200 2-year community colleges in the U.S., educating nearly half of the total undergraduate population.

As is typical of recessions, enrollment at these community colleges has been soaring as cost-conscious students and parents look for cheaper alternatives.  The budgetary cuts on education by many states, therefore, could not have come at a worse time.  It’s hardly surprising that merit scholarships seems like a classic example of a nonessential expense that begs to be cut.

But merit scholarships have a more complex rationale as well.  They were usually instituted to encourage top students in a state who might otherwise leave the state and go elsewhere for college to stay within the state.  Presumably, these students would then remain after college, become productive members of the workforce and contribute tax dollars to the state.  Attracting these students would also increase the prestige and the ranking of the in-state universities and in turn attract other students from out of state.

It seems that, in times of economic recession, when middle-class and upper-middle-class households are feeling most squeezed by the downturn and sensitive to price differences, this type of merit scholarships would be at its most effective.  If a state is looking to attract top students, both homegrown and abroad, it should expand, rather than contract, its merit scholarship programs right now.

Which brings me back to my original question of the basic educational mission of public universities — is it to give as many citizens as possible the opportunity to attend college, or is it to educate only, or preferably, the best and the brightest, because educating them brings more benefits to the state (and perhaps to society)?  This, in turn, probes our notion of what education is: is it a basic right that should be enjoyed by the many, or is it a kind of luxury, a privilege that society confers on the talented and skilled (and rich) few?  We can also see that in these questions, the mission of the community colleges (fulfilling the more democratic mission of educating the masses) is at tension with the mission of the public research universities (competing with the private universities and catering to the talented few).

In time of economic prosperity, it was possible that both missions could co-exist peacefully.  But a time of scarcity brings these tensions to the fore.

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