College financial aid awarded on the basis of academic merit is wrong according to critics who believe schools should only offer scholarships based on financial need.
The University of Oklahoma has a particularly aggressive program of recruiting National Merit scholars for its scholarship program, enrolling about 200 each year.
Oklahoma’s program touches on a long-running argument within higher education, about the role of “merit aid” — scholarships that schools give on the basis of credentials like grades, test scores or musical skills — versus the aid that nearly all schools give on the basis of a student’s financial need. Most colleges give some academic merit aid (though some of the wealthiest and most selective schools do not), and the amount has increased over the years as competition for top students grows more fierce. Oklahoma’s honors program is an extreme example.
Questioning who exactly benefits from merit aid
“There are those, me included, who say the purpose of aid should be to help people go to college who might not be able to otherwise,” said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. “Giving merit scholarships to kids who would have been going to college anyway can benefit the institution without necessarily benefiting the broader public.”
Should state schools be spending money to attract smart students?
The dispute is especially sharp when it comes to state schools, which face dwindling resources and are seen as having a public service mission, but it is largely confined to those who study education policy. Oklahoma’s program draws little other fire, on or off campus, even given that about half of the National Merit scholars come from out of state.
Some arguments in support of merit aid
“Having these kinds of classmates motivates other students, it elevates class discussions, it’s a recruiting tool when we go after new students or faculty,” said David Ray, a political science professor and dean of the Honors College. “We don’t just throw money at them to get them here; we give them unique opportunities once they’re here.”
Merit aid is distasteful to some because it may perpetuate a type of elitism, but the benefits of rewarding and grooming high-performing students seem like a no-brainer to me.