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the statewide 11th grade Michigan Educational Assessment
Program tests.
In research I conducted with Douglas T. Shapiro of
the University of Michigan, we found a large gap in the
scholarship qualification rates of white and Asian American
students on the one hand, and African American, Hispanic
and Native American students on the other. For the first
cohort of eligible students, those graduating from high school
in 2000, 22 percent of white students and 25 percent of Asian
American students qualified for the scholarships. In contrast,
the scholarship qualification rates of underrepresented
minority students were three percent for African Americans,
11 percent for Hispanics, and 11 percent for Native
We found the same types of gaps in the scholarship
qualification rates when we examined students from schools
in richer and poorer communities. Almost one-quarter of
the students in the wealthiest communities qualified for the
scholarships. In contrast, only six percent of students in the
state’s poorest communities qualified. Our conclusion is that
the program is unlikely to have much impact on its stated
goal of increasing access to college in the state.
These scholarship qualification rate differences have
led to a “disparate impact,” in legal parlance. This disparate
impact is the core allegation in a federal lawsuit filed against
the Michigan program last June by a coalition of groups
headed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
The suit,
White et al v. Engler et al
, alleges that the program
violates the civil rights of minority and poor students in the
state through the use of criteria that are not educationally
defensible. The suit is expected to go to trial this year.
A similar suit has been filed in federal court in Arkansas,
alleging that a merit scholarship program run by that state
also discriminates against minority students. The Arkansas
Governor’s Distinguished Scholar program, which bases
the scholarships on students’ SAT or ACT scores, has given
only four of the 808 grants awarded since
1997 to African Americans. And this is
in a state where approximately 20 percent
of the high school graduates are African
These are only two examples of the
misuse of high-stakes tests. (For more
on the misuse of high-stakes tests, see
“Standards for the Standards Movement:
Do High School Exit Exams Measure
Up?” by Rebecca Zwick, in the Fall
2000 issue of
National CrossTalk
.) Other
states use high-stakes tests for merit
scholarships in conjunction with other
criteria, which, while a step in the right
direction, is still problematic if the use
of these criteria results in the awarding of scholarships to
students who are likely to attend college anyway.
Have no income eligibility requirements for the
As described earlier, one of the strongest predictors of
whether an individual will attend college is the income and
wealth of his or
her parents. Data
from the College
Board indicate that
89 percent of high
school graduates
from families in
the highest income
quartile (family
income above
$74,500 in 1997)
attend college.
For students from
families in the lowest
income quartile
(below $25,000), only
53 percent continue
on to college. While
many factors help to determine whether somebody attends
college—including academic preparation and aptitude, and
the influence of parents, siblings and peers—the research
on college choice tells us that financial considerations are an
important part of the equation.
The Georgia HOPE scholarship program, when first
introduced in 1993, included a family income cap of $66,000.
Students from families with incomes above this level were
excluded from participation. By the program’s third year,
however, the income cap was eliminated, thus opening up
participation to all academically eligible Georgians. Most
other state merit programs, such as the Michigan Merit
Scholarships and the Bright Futures scholarships in Florida,
similarly have no income ceiling.
An analysis conducted by the Florida Postsecondary
Education Planning Commission found that almost 40
percent of the scholarships in 1998 went to students from
families with incomes above $60,000 per year. Charles Reed,
former chancellor of the state university system in Florida,
related a vignette that summarized his frustration with the
Bright Futures scholarships. After being approached by a
man who praised the program on behalf of his two children
who received the scholarships and were attending the
University of Florida, “Reed was troubled when he learned
that the man was an orthopedic surgeon who could easily
afford university tuition without financial aid from the state.
‘Something is really wrong when you do that,’ Reed said.
‘When you can give something away to the middle and
upper-middle class, in politics, it doesn’t get any better than
that.’” (
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
, December 20, 1997)
There are some exceptions to this trend. Texas placed
an income cap of $40,000 on its Toward Excellence, Access
& Success scholarships. California’s Cal Grant program
uses both financial need and merit criteria in the awarding
of scholarships. (The recent legislation to greatly expand
the Cal Grant program, which has fairly stringent income
requirements, is a welcome correction to the movement
toward merit programs.)
The exceptions are few and far between, however, as most
of the newly established merit aid programs have no financial
need tests at all.
Almost 40 percent
of Florida’s Bright
Futures merit
scholarships in 1998
went to students
from families with
incomes above
$60,000 per year.
While the Georgia
HOPE scholarship
program has
garnered much of the
national attention,
other states have
jumped on the merit
aid bandwagon in
recent years.