Twenty years ago, an article in The Cavalier Daily examined how Jefferson Scholars can profit from their time at the University. Between photos of Alumni Hall and a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the article described the phenomenon of Jefferson Scholars receiving multiple merit-based scholarships, which can together exceed the cost of being a student. In the article, Jefferson Scholars Foundation President James H. Wright shamelessly defended merit-based aid — “anybody should be allowed to compete.” But financial aid belongs with students who need it.
The Jefferson Scholars Foundation is an organization preoccupied with its own mythology. In its annual reports, the Foundation promotes the accomplishments of current scholars alongside positive imagery of Jefferson. Like most things named after the University’s founder, Jefferson Scholarships subvert the intentions of Jefferson himself, forfeiting meaning for prestige. While the scholarships rightly abandon Jefferson’s racism and sexism, they ignore the social mobility inherent in Jefferson’s educational vision.
Across Jefferson’s writings, there are two proposals for academic scholarships, both from 1779 — before the University’s founding. The first proposal envisioned a system of public education granting certain poor students access to grammar school. Each year, one student would “be authorised … to proceed to William and Mary College … the expence of which annually shall be paid by the Treasurer.” Jefferson’s second proposal for academic scholarships is more vague — referring to “scholarships, and other good uses” for revenue at the College of William & Mary. The second proposal is unspecific, but the first proposal is plainly redistributive — in an 1813 letter to John Adams, Jefferson mentioned it alongside laws that “laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy.”
The purported mission of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation “is to benefit the University of Virginia by identifying, attracting and nurturing individuals of extraordinary intellectual range and depth who possess the highest concomitant qualities of leadership, scholarship and citizenship.” These ideals are supposed to embody Jefferson, but the founder’s writing does not support the Foundation’s scholarships. For Jefferson, need was a prerequisite for merit, and liberty depended on a broadly educated citizenry — not privileged students hoarding wealth.
Most merit scholarships are a distinctly modern phenomenon, and Jefferson Scholarships themselves did not exist until 1980. The problem with merit scholarships is systemic, setting up a bidding war for students who can already afford college. According to a recent paper published by New America, 339 public universities spent almost $32 billion over 16 years on scholarships for students who did not need them — despite the economic benefits of social mobility. While technically separate from the University, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation contributes to this systemic problem. Some students who need Jefferson Scholarships receive them, but in the absence of need, the scholarships function as a redistribution of wealth to the already wealthy.
Although it claims to award scholarships based solely on merit, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation awards scholarships based on privilege. To truly consider merit, the scholarships would have to consider need. One of the Foundation’s three metrics of evaluation, scholarship, highly correlates with family income — whether evaluated through SAT scores, grades or class rank — even though the job market already rewards academic performance with higher lifetime earnings. The initial selection process for the scholarships introduces additional bias. Secondary schools nominate one or two candidates — even though socioeconomic status correlates with perceived student performance. By refusing to consider need in awarding scholarships, the Foundation perpetuates existing disparities.
In a country increasingly divided along educational lines, scholarships should make college more affordable, not attract select students to select colleges. If considering need causes wealthy students to attend other universities, this University would not be worse for it — the median family income at the University is already $155,500. Financial aid is an oxymoron when given to the wealthy, helping those who do not need help. The University has made strides in recent years increasing need-based aid — even during the pandemic — and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation should follow the University’s mission of “affordable access.” For the good of the University, Jefferson Scholarships should consider need.
Adam Grim is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.