College financial aid: need or merit?

Every semester I, along with every other student here at the College of William and Mary, receive the highly anticipated e-Bill email outlining our tuition and room and board costs for the upcoming semester. This moment in time is one I usually try to ignore because it means I have to begin the laborious process of spending hours listening to elevator music trying to expedite my student loan application process.

Although it seems to be a topic of constant conversation, the rising cost of tuition is more than just a piece of news on television; this issue is something every student here at the College can relate to, especially the out-of-state students like myself. The reason I’m thinking about the issue now is due to an article I read recently in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Should More College Financial Aid Be Based on Need, not Merit?” The article presents an argument from both sides of the debate, with one author writing in favor of increasing need-based financial aid and the other in favor of merit-based aid.

After reading the points and evidence brought forth by the two authors, it was difficult to immediately place myself on either side of this debate. Proponents of need-based aid often take the income inequality route by stating that lower-income families do not have access to the same resources and education as those of better financial standing, and thus they require the aid to even the playing field, so to speak. Supporters of merit-based aid cite need-based financial aid as a driving factor in skyrocketing tuition costs and see need-based aid as a “handout” that does not reward hard work.

As a member of the upper-middle class, at first it was easy to side with the increase in merit-based aid because such aid has a greater potential to benefit me personally. I can recall situations during high school and even more recently when parents would discuss how need-based aid simply rewarded fiscal irresponsibility. Families who did not have adequate financial planning and did not save for their child’s education would be rewarded with subsidies to cover the costs of their inaction. This argument seems defendable and definitely fits within the American ideal that one should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps rather than rely on the charity of others.

To be honest, for a while I did believe in the argument I just presented above, but after considering the issue from other perspectives, I have had a change of heart. Solely examining the result of receiving need-based aid fails to recognize the circumstances surrounding the financial situation of many high-school graduates. Many families, even if they wanted to, simply lack the disposable income to save adequately for their child’s education, especially at top institutions such as the College. Furthermore, the state of our country’s secondary education system simply favors those in higher-income communities, where the larger tax revenue base allows them to hire more qualified teachers and in turn allows students to develop the academic qualifications necessary to gain admission to the increasingly selective top-tier colleges and universities.

Given the greater level of difficulty low-income students face in gaining the academic and extracurricular qualifications demanded by top schools, there is no reason they should be denied the opportunity to increase their long-term earnings potential and better the lives of future generations of their family simply because they cannot afford the cost. Need-based aid isn’t a tool for rewarding inaction, it is one that helps ensure students have equal opportunities to gain access to the academic and career success afforded by the prestige of a place such as the College.

Email Derek Bluemling at


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