Bright Futures requires students get at least a 3.0 GPA and 1210 SAT score. For Paramore’s students, the biggest challenge was hitting the SAT mark. But it wasn’t just the students in Orlando.
Since Bright Futures was created, in 1997, no more than 7 percent of recipients have been Black, in a state where 17 percent of the population is. And this disparity is not isolated to Florida.
The merit-aid blueprint
In my reporting, I also focused on the HOPE scholarship in Georgia and the TOPS scholarship in Louisiana. I talked with dozens of experts, students, counselors, state officials, and higher education advocates to understand how race plays a role in merit-aid systems.
When lawmakers shifted toward merit scholarships, they talked a lot about keeping the “best and brightest” at home. But how do you measure that? And who does that end up helping the most?
“Students of all races and incomes can benefit from merit-based aid programs. However, the issue is that the benefits of the programs disproportionately skew toward wealthier, whiter student populations that are likely to attend and finish college anyway,” said Tom Harnisch, the vice president for government relations at SHEEO (State Higher Education Executive Officers), a national organization.
That’s in part because students from wealthier backgrounds tend to attend higher-quality schools and have access to other resources, like test preparation, that help them meet the merit-aid criteria.
In Georgia, the HOPE program has done more over its 30 years to influence where students go to college more so than who goes, researchers have found.
Jennifer Lee of the Georgia Policy & Budget Institute also found big gaps in who received a full-tuition scholarship. Only 6 percent of Zell Miller scholars, as that full-tuition version of the merit aid is known, were Black while 70 percent were white.
The problem? The scholarship program does little to address the many years of discrimination in housing, employment, and the financial section, she said. As a result of these societal challenges, Jennifer says there are huge income and wealth gaps in Georgia and across the country. And the merit aid programs are only perpetuating those.
Influence of wealth
In Louisiana, too, the state awards most of its aid based on merit, through TOPS. In fact, the state is spending more than eight times as much on TOPS ($331 million last year) as it does on GO Grants, its need-based program (which got $41 million).
And there, too, there are racial gaps in who benefits from TOPS. Nearly three-quarters of recipients of the state scholarship are white. Only about half of first-time entering freshmen in the state are.
And last year another data point about TOPS made headlines: reports showed the state paid for more than 11,000 students whose parents are millionaires to attend college.
Kim Hunter Reed, the state’s commissioner of higher education, acknowledged the connection between family income and TOPS. To her, the solution lies in supporting both need and merit-based programs.
Ask college students how states should give out financial aid and most say it should be based more on students’ financial need than on academic performance.
Seventy-one percent of the 500 college students surveyed this year by College Pulse, an online survey and analytics company, for Open Campus said states should focus more on financial need. Just 17 percent said states should instead focus more on academic performance. The rest said they weren’t sure.
Their responses differed significantly by race. Among nonwhite students, even more — 80 percent — said states should focus on financial need. That compares with 65 percent of white students.