A Student of History

March 15, 2007

Goodbye to Good Grades

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 7:11 pm

In a very unusual move, Hamilton College said today that it “will stop offering merit scholarships to incoming students in 2008 and use the money instead to provide more need-based assistance to low-and middle-income families.”  Apparently, this action has prompted a bunch of positive reactions from other people in the field, though the news report I have read (CNN) states that it really is going to “affect only a few dozen students.”  I am not sure why this is so–because the school doesn’t give out much merit based aid now, as it is?   

Anyway, that is beside the point.  Perhaps it may be that Hamilton College is reacting to a growing chorus of folks who declare that all schools can be faulted for “using their resources to lure high-achieving students — many of whom don’t need the money to attend college.”  This has the result of “thereby improving a school’s academic standing at the expense of its economic diversity.” 

Whoaa….Wait a minute–is it really more important to achieve “economic diversity” than it is to improve a school’s academic standing?  Isn’t that what schools are for–academic excellence (hint: that’s why they call it the academy!)  And let’s be straight–economic diversity is really a code word for class.  Thus, could it be that some are calling for a kind of affirmative action policy based on class/income?

CNN goes on to report that:

Hamilton, a 195-year-old liberal arts college in upstate New York with about 1,800 students, has awarded a limited number of merit scholarships since 1997. On average, 15 to 20 students out of a first-year class of 470 have received merit scholarships of up to half tuition. Approximately 5 percent of Hamilton’s $21 million financial aid budget is spent on merit aid, according to Monica Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid. The new policy will reallocate about $1 million each year for additional need-based aid, she said.

They go on to say that “more than half of all Hamilton students receive need-based financial aid. The average financial aid package (grant, work-study, loan) for those students exceeds $26,000…It costs $43,890 a year to attend Hamilton.”

What?!?!?  No wonder their kids need to have aid redistributed based not on merit but on a lack of resources!  I wonder if anyone at Hamilton has thought about ways to cut the costs of a year there. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I feel very strongly that if one can’t afford a good school (and Hamilton is for the most part, despite a very pronounced PC list to the left) but have the academic credentials or potential to do well at a top-tier place that there ought to be ways of figuring out how to go.  But should not one of these ways be merit?  I mean, historically, that is how good students from poorer families got their break–merit scholarships.  I should know, I was one.  I came from a farm family with a very low income, and went to one of the best liberal arts colleges inthe nation–on an ROTC ride based on merit.  I also received some financial aid from the school, W&L, for that which Uncle Sam did not cover. 

In addition, I think that at W&L when I was there in the mid-1980s, the biggest weakness I could tell was that there were far too many rich kids there who had no idea what poverty was, or even what middle class life was like.  That was not a good scene, and fortunatley that has changed for the better today.  Nevertheless, I was a poorer kid from a public high school that did well, and got to go there free based primarily on merit.  Now, under Hamilton’s plan, I suppose that I would have gotten a lot of aid too based on need. 

What bothers me is if this trend turns out to be a way of socking it to the rich.  If a kid does well in high school but happens to come from a wealthy family, why shouldn’t she or he get a financial reward for it?  This basically means from a parent’s perspective that because you’ve got money, no matter how well your kid performs in high school (eh, prep school that is), it’s full cost.  There’s something wrong with that.  As I noted above, W&L could have used some more diversity while I was there (in several categories), but not at the expense of academic excellence.  That is why we all went there in the first place…..if Hamilton really wants to help out students who need financial aid, cut costs.

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