Double bad news for minorities

The Education Beat

College: The president announces that he opposes race-based admissions, and a report shows most low-income students aren't getting the aid they need.

January 19, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush got plenty of media attention Wednesday after he announced his opposition to an admissions policy at the University of Michigan that considers an applicant's race, among other factors.

But there was more tough news for minorities a few blocks away at the National Press Club. The College Board released a report disclosing what many know because they can't afford college: Financial aid based on student need is giving way to other scholarship programs, some of which benefit the rich and well-connected.

Led by Georgia's HOPE scholarship program, states and colleges are putting their money in "merit" subsidies based on students' high school grades, SAT scores, membership in the National Honor Society, class rank and other criteria that are related to income only in the sense that these students tend to be white and middle class.

This is occurring at a time of soaring tuition and state budget deficits.

The report said that even after taking grants, subsidized loans, work and a reasonable family contribution into account, low-income students face an average unmet need of $3,700. Many are forced to borrow, and some are forced to leave school.

"From the 1960s through the 1990s, all the partners in higher education operated on the proposition that access should be available to all," said Michael S. McPherson, president of Macalester College in Minnesota and one of the authors of the report. "In recent years this has been called into question."

The College Board, which sponsored a yearlong National Dialogue on Student Financial Aid, called on Congress to substantially increase Pell Grants, the major federal program for low-income students. It made several other recommendations, including one that colleges and universities reaffirm their commitment to need-based aid.

"Not many colleges are truly need-blind [in admissions] anymore," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project. "It's unconscionable."

One of the ominous trends, said Sandy Baum, a Skidmore College economist, is that, like the federal government, state governments and colleges "are increasingly targeting subsidies at students who are unwilling to pay for particular schools, rather than at low-income students who are unable to pay" to attend any college.

Georgia's HOPE program, funded by the state's lottery, is the oldest and most generous of the merit plans. It gave out $300 million in full-tuition grants last year based on high school grades. Researchers at the University of Georgia estimate that 96 percent of Georgia HOPE money has gone to students who likely don't need assistance. Not surprisingly, HOPE is extremely popular politically.

In Maryland, as the accompanying graphic shows, needy students are getting slightly less than half the financial aid pot, now about $80 million a year. They got two-thirds of it as recently as 1999. The shift is largely attributable to Maryland's version of the HOPE program, which was launched in 2000 and has grown to $18.9 million, according to Janice Doyle, assistant secretary for finance policy at the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

Unlike Georgia, Maryland is spending most of its HOPE money to fill critical job shortages in education ($13.8 million this year) and science and technology ($4.7 million). "That's a kind of need, too," said Doyle, "the need of a state to educate its children."

Doyle acknowledged that Maryland's two major need-based scholarship programs aren't reaching anywhere near the number of eligible students. "We need to do a better job of outreach. Many students don't know that they're eligible for aid."

In late 2001, an independent study of Maryland's programs recommended a series of reforms, including the consolidation of 24 programs into five and the elimination of the program that allows state senators and delegates to hand out nearly $10 million. ("Individual financial aid rewards should not be based on political influence or affiliation," the study said, although, to be fair, many of the lawmakers base their awards on financial need.)

The study produced few reforms, and scrapping the legislative scholarship program is highly unlikely. The General Assembly has been guarding that perk since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was in diapers.

Legacy, not grades, got Bush into Yale

When he was admitted to Yale University, George W. Bush was what higher educators call a "legacy." That is, he got in not because of his high school grades and stellar SAT scores, but because his father and grandfather had gone to Yale.

Last week, this child of white wealth and privilege said he opposed the admissions scheme at the University of Michigan that takes applicants' race (among other things) into account. Such admissions plans, Bush said, "amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based on their race."

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