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Scholarships for Achievement, Not Need, Increase Rapidly

College: The shift comes largely in response to middle-class parents' concerns about costs.

June 17, 2002|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

College scholarships, long directed at needy students, increasingly are being awarded based on achievement rather than financial hardship.

The result is a far greater rise in state and college grants to relatively affluent students than to students from poor and moderate income families, many higher education researchers say.

"We're to the point today that almost 25% of all of the state grant dollars to undergraduates are now awarded without any determination of financial need," up from 10% in 1990, said Donald E. Heller, a senior research associate with the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. "So that means, literally, that the son of a janitor in Georgia would qualify for the same kind of scholarship as would, let's say, Ted Turner's kid."

According to an analysis by Heller, the percentage of students from the highest-income families snaring state grants climbed four times faster than among low-income students between the 1992-93 and 1999-2000 school years.

Heller also found that the financially best-off students are now about as likely as the poorest to get scholarships directly from their schools. In the 1999-2000 school year, the nation's public and private colleges awarded scholarships to about a fifth of students supported by families earning $100,000 or more. The figure was virtually identical for students from families earning less than $20,000, according to Heller's analysis.

Although similar figures are not available for California, the state appears in many ways to have bucked the financial aid pattern that has kept many low- and moderate-income students out of four-year schools. Researchers cite the relatively moderate attendance fees at California's public colleges and universities, along with the substantial grants offered by the state or the schools themselves.

A recent Irvine Foundation survey of 40 leading U.S. universities found that four California schools --UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and USC, a private school--led the nation in enrolling lower-income students. Likewise, nearly all of the 22 schools in the California State University system have surpassed the national average for enrolling lower-income students.

California took a major step in 2000 by expanding its Cal Grant aid program, which focuses on students on the bottom half of the income scale. Meanwhile, other states, many of them in the Sun Belt, have launched achievement-based scholarship programs that disregard financial need.

The shift comes largely in response to middle-class parents' concerns about rising college costs. At the same time, colleges are offering more merit scholarships, which tend to go to more affluent students, to improve their academic standing. "We keep spending more and more money on kids who were born lucky, and we increasingly disadvantage kids who were born into poor families," said Thomas G. Mortenson, an Iowa education policy analyst.

Those who advocate for lower-income students say that need-based grants have, since the 1960s, been important weapons against poverty. They also say the redirected aid comes at the worst time: just as the numbers of lower-income youths reaching college age are booming, and as more low-income adults are returning to school. It also comes as tuitions in cash-strapped states are soaring.

More Money to Affluent

Although Ivy League and other prestigious schools promise to cover financial gaps for any accepted student who can't afford college costs, admissions officers say that not many low-income students either apply or qualify for admission. Most of the nation's nearly $31 billion in annual grants-- especially federal grants--still go to poor or moderate-income students. But nearly two-thirds of the overall scholarship and grant dollars come from states or from the schools themselves, and more of that money is being channeled to affluent students.

Eventually, "the poor kid who is not an absolute superstar is very likely to be frozen out," said Gordon C. Winston, an economics professor at Williams College in Massachusetts. "Right now, we're not in terrible shape, but I think we're getting there."

Loans have increasingly filled the gap for students from all economic levels, but research shows that the burden falls heaviest on lower-income students. What's more, the fear of being saddled with college loans, experts say, stops many low-income youths from going to college and leads others who are qualified for four-year schools to attend community colleges instead.

Other low- and moderate-income students try to manage the costs of their education by working long hours or studying part time--tactics that, new research shows, often lead to higher dropout rates.

Merit Scholarship Boom

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