KELLY: According to need

The University must prioritize its need-based aid programs over instituting more merit-based scholarships

I’ll get straight to the point — now is not the time to introduce more merit-based aid at the University. Need-based aid must continue to be the fundamental priority. If our commitment to need-based aid is not renewed, we will leave low and moderate-income students in the dust.

Last Wednesday, Viewpoint writer Will Henagan wrote a piece arguing for why the University should offer merit-based scholarships. His analysis, however, overlooks important trends in higher education that the University should consider if it wishes to engage in more merit-based aid.

The problem is not that the University is shortchanging meritorious students on aid; I think we can agree that all students here are, in their own way, exceptional. The real issue at hand is the decline of need-based aid. As declining government support and institutional prestige-seeking have driven public institutions towards heavier reliance on tuition revenue, many have adapted by implementing the enrollment management tactics of private colleges, to encourage wealthy and discourage low-income students to enroll. While many other public universities have implemented new merit aid programs, the University should stay removed from this trend if its commitment to need based aid is to remain strong.

One crucial piece of information missing from my colleague’s column is that merit aid ends up going disproportionately to wealthy students. Since college preparatory schools and standardized test prep courses are expensive endeavors, individuals who stand out on traditional measures of merit often come from affluent families.

The problem is, offering merit aid could come at the expense of seats and aid for low-income students. While there are undoubtedly many meritorious students at the University who are deserving of aid, a shift towards more merit aid programs would draw funds away from need-based programs at a time when they require more attention. In an environment where universities are starved for money and must compete to maintain their financial and academic viability, need-based aid has increasingly taken a back seat to more financially lucrative endeavors.

Now is not the time to call for more merit aid, not when need-based aid is in a state of crisis at the University. Even before the drastic cuts to AccessUva, our institution stood out as one of the least socioeconomically diverse in the country, one that offered substantial aid to low-income students but failed to enroll them in large numbers; the percentage of University students eligible for Pell grants in 2012 was, at a paltry 11 percent , among the lowest in the country.

After the considerable cuts to AccessUVA, it is questionable whether the University offers meaningful aid to low-income students anymore. To amplify the inequity of that deplorable situation by instituting more merit aid programs would constitute a dramatic retreat from the University’s public mission of equal access to education for all. At a time when there are growing gaps in educational opportunity and attainment, the University must make a renewed commitment to creating a level playing-field for low-income students.

To ask the state for more funds for merit-based aid, as Henagan proposes, would be precisely the wrong direction to take. Need-based aid must be the University’s primary focus if it is to truly offer equal access to education. Offering merit aid programs at a time when need-based programs are disappearing would not only create an inequity of access to education but would also exacerbate what is already a serious lack of socioeconomic diversity. We must not allow ourselves to join the path that other public universities have taken; our primary commitment should be to increase the University’s socioeconomic diversity through the active recruitment of low-income students.

Moreover, an increased amount of need-based aid with no strings attached would have many positive, enduring effects for low-income students. According to a study written in part by Benjamin Castleman, a professor at the Curry School of Education, these effects would include a higher probability of low-income students staying continually enrolled in college and graduating within six years. Renewing our commitment to need-based aid may be difficult financially, but it would give new life to part of the University’s purpose: a pathway to the middle-class for low-income and working-class students.

On a final note, I would contest the claim that need-based financial aid “will never have the same positive psychological effect” as merit aid. A dubious assumption in itself, it misjudges those who receive need-based aid, who feel as strong a sense of duty, as keen a sense of gratitude as anyone. The sense of appreciativeness that comes from being given a fair chance in life is, I believe, far more inspiring than the feeling of being rewarded could ever be.

Conor Kelly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published March 4, 2014 in Opinion

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