Oct. 25, 2014

The danger of giving needless merit aid

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February 26, 2013

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Each college has its own distinct culture as a result of the organic culmination of its school history, leadership, campus, academic standards for admission and countless other factors.

When schools give merit scholarships to students who bring no redeeming value except their parents’ checkbooks, those schools are not only compromising their own social and academic integrity, but they are also diluting their campuses with non-contributors in exchange for funds.

The definition of the word “merit” is just vague enough that many — but not all — schools can get away with using it as a cover for recruiting wealthy, less-than-average high school students whose parents are more likely to donate to the College.

Unfortunately, according to New America Foundation Director of Education Kevin Carey, “Catering to children of privilege is a growing trend.”

Doing so might help ensure a school’s financial support, but consider the long-term effects. The problem isn’t just that scholarship money is going to mediocre students of already rich families instead of hard-working, smart students who need it: It’s that these scholarships reinforce the negative behavior of some of these slacker students. These students will graduate with a degree from a respected university, get a job, and slack off there as well. If this really is a growing trend, think of how these students will affect the economy post-graduation.

There’s also the dilution of campus culture to consider. Tossing unqualified students into the mix corrupts the distinct, intangible character of each school. No one consciously decides what that culture is, and it’s usually difficult to express in one sentence.

Take the College of William and Mary: We’re dorky but fine with it. We make fun of Williamsburg for being a tourist trap, but we are secretly proud of the fact that it is entrenched in America’s colonial history. Students at the College appreciate walking into Wawa to see a colonial woman at the ATM, a college student buying Easy Mac, and a townie just hanging around. Each student, upon closer look, has some sort of passion or talent that sets him or her apart from others. This semester alone, I’ve learned that among my good friends are two — yes, two — undercover bagpipists, a cartoonist and a beat boxer.

I may be biased, but it seems that the sense of genuineness that pervades our student body is unique. It’s difficult to describe, but anyone who goes here knows that, in general, it’s more important to have good friends and interests than to be in the best sorority or fraternity.

The point is that a school’s integrity is a real thing, something that both defines and is defined by the student body. And it has nothing to do with how new and shiny its buildings are.

The College has three merit scholarships, all of which require legitimate academic achievement. According to the College’s website, William and Mary Scholars is a small group of academically successful students who have “overcome unusual adversity and/or are members of underrepresented groups who would contribute to campus diversity.” The Monroe Scholarship and 1693 Scholarship are very selective in terms of academic success and extracurricular and intellectual engagement.

This school might not have three gyms, sorority mansions or fountains on the lawns, but it holds its students — both current and recently admitted — to a high standard that is reflected in the character of the student body.

I understand that schools need money and that it is tempting to make sacrifices in order to bring in more funds, but there is no point to merit scholarships if schools choose not to award it on the basis of merit.

Ideally, the college experience allows students to get a good education, be challenged and inspired, make true friends, and contribute something back to the school. Each university leaves its mark on its students, and students should strive to do the same for their universities. The real merit is in pursuing that goal.

Email Emily Kelley at emkelley@email.wm.edu.

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