Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Merit Scholarships and Bias

Warning: Extreme Heresy Alert.

Although my politics are strongly and unapologetically social-democratic, there’s an issue simmering in higher ed on which the people I agree with tend to be conservatives. For the life of me, I don’t know why the battle lines have been drawn where they have. It’s merit scholarships.

Simply put, I embrace them. I think they make tremendous amounts of sense. Let’s give the kids who busted their butts in high school a reward for it. Let’s say, with money and institutional backing, that taking challenging courses and devoting energy to academics is just as valuable as working on a good three-point shot.

For reasons that utterly elude me, the ‘left’ in higher ed is deeply suspicious of (if not simply hostile to) merit scholarships, and the ‘right’ embraces them. This offends me as an educator, and it offends me as a supporter of the left.

The standard ‘left’ argument against merit scholarships runs something like this: they siphon money away from need-based programs, they mostly benefit the well-off, they’re based on biased criteria (such as standardized tests), they go to people who would have attended college anyway, and they’re elitist.

My responses, in order, are: that’s another issue, who cares, hogwash, who cares, and give me a break, respectively.

To argue that they ‘siphon’ resources away from need-based aid (that’s aid awarded based on poverty, independent of academic ability) is to misunderstand the politics of financial aid. Need-based aid is packaged as a kind of altruism, laced with a pretty basic appeal to a few interest groups. Merit-based aid is packaged as a strategic move to enhance either a single institution’s ‘academic profile’ (meaning its place in the prestige pecking order), or as an economic development initiative. The two kinds of aid are not mutually exclusive, and historically haven’t been. While I can understand that the public at large should be unmoved by the prestige motive, the economic development motive strikes me as transparently correct. To suggest that economic development initiatives siphon money away from welfare is simply to get the history, and the politics, wrong.

(It also opens up the politically-fatal identification of financial aid with welfare. American political history has shown abundantly that programs identified strongly with the poor will be grossly underfunded over time, while programs the middle class feels it owns will survive, even if they also benefit the poor. For the left to willingly swallow a poison pill like this just defies belief.)

This objection is also painfully elitist, in that it simply assumes that lower-income kids won’t measure up if merit is the criterion. I can understand a 19th century European conservative holding this view – the peasants are revolting, the lower orders are so unclean, etc. – but for a contemporary egalitarian, no. The history of programs in which third-grade classes are promised free college tuition suggests that, given the right incentives, the ‘lower orders’ are quite capable, thank you. If the incentives are missing at the early ages, then let’s address that. Merit scholarships, especially generous ones, address that quite nicely.

“They mostly benefit the well-off.” Decoded, this means that kids from wealthier families are likelier to be college-ready than kids from less wealthy families. That’s true, and regrettable, but beyond what a college can control. If the public schools in poorer areas are frequently struggling, and they are, then by all means, let’s have at them. Let’s not pretend that it isn’t happening, and then simply wring our hands when the poor kids flunk out of college, which is the current ‘left’ approach. (The logical conclusion of this approach is the new ‘A for effort’ policy recently adopted by a small college in one of the Carolinas. Area employers are already shying away from that school’s grads. What is being achieved, exactly?)

“Biased criteria.” This chestnut should simply be retired. The analogies section of the SAT has been retired, along with such terms as ‘cotillion’ and ‘regatta.’ More to the point, the math section is, well, about math. If a kid can’t solve “2x + 4 = 10,” I don’t want to hear about bias. If more poor kids struggle on this section than they should, then the problem is in math instruction in the junior-high and high schools, or in what the kids care about, or both. (Interestingly, the score gaps that the ‘left’ takes as evidence of bias are actually higher on the math section. How this proves bias is entirely beyond me.)

“They go to people who would have attended college anyway.” This is probably true, and it may suggest limits from the point of view of a single institution. On a macro level, though, this is simply obtuse. It’s like objecting that Nobel Prizes go mostly to people who achieve a lot anyway. Well, yeah, they do. Scholarships are both incentives and statements of priorities. They tell the public what colleges value so much that they’re willing to pay for it. If it were up to me, I’d much rather tell the public about the access we’re granting the hard-working, smart child of a single mother than the free ride we’re giving some hockey player.

“They’re elitist.” As opposed to...? Academia is elitist, by definition. American society is elitist too, although along economic lines instead of intellectual ones. To pretend that higher ed doesn’t serve a sorting function for future employers is to live in a dream world. The sorting function is based on the (largely correct) assumption that not everybody can do this. What makes me more a lefty than a conservative is my conviction that academic talent exists independently of income. Poor kids can be smart, and rich kids can be dumb. (The same applies to adults, btw.) What makes academia worth preserving is that it deals in a separate currency, which is something like cognitive talent, or even truth. To wish that away in the name of egalitarianism is, in fact, to surrender completely to the economic hierarchy of the rest of American society. In academia, the smart blue-collar kid can beat the rich son-of-a-President. In the rest of our society, that’s not true.

I’m not arguing that standardized tests or GPA’s are perfect measures of academic ability, and I’m certainly not arguing for getting rid of need-based aid. (Actually, I’d increase it.) I’m just saying that anyone who truly cares about equality shouldn’t be bothered by incentives for honest achievement. One of my proudest moments as an educator was when a former student wrote me to express his gratitude for exposing a “poor blue-collar kid” to the classics. He developed a taste for them, and has become quite the intellectual, on his own terms. Nothing is too good for the proletariat, as one of my old profs liked to say. You can find brains in the dreariest places. Let’s give those brains access to higher education. Let’s tell the kid in junior high or tenth grade that doing his homework will benefit him just as much as going to practice. If I didn’t believe that, I’d have to go into another line of work.

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