When Paul Kline was applying to college last fall, he found himself in an enviable position: He didn’t have to worry about financial aid. The 17-year-old could count on support from a generous, wealthy grandmother and knew his tuition would be covered.
Nonetheless, he earned several scholarships for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK) — worth more than $18,000 per year. On top of that, he received $3,500 from HOPE, Tennessee’s merit-based scholarship.
Even as 19 states reduced the total amount of financial they awarded between 2008 and 2013, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs, Kline is among hundreds of thousands of U.S. students from well-off families awarded public dollars in the form of merit-based state scholarships — all based on grades and test scores, not on whether or not they need the money.
Twelve states plus Washington D.C. now spend more on merit-based aid than need-based aid, and many others have increased funding for scholarships based on academic achievement instead of need. Some states have cut financial aid for everybody, leaving hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income students without help simply because the states’ money ran out.
“I always knew that if all else failed, if I wanted to go to college really bad and I still had to pay $60,000 out of pocket, I could,” said Kline, a lanky Nashville native with dark blond hair. “I know that for me the HOPE scholarship was almost negligible because of all the other merit-based stuff I got from UTK.”
Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, where Kline graduated in May, provides a microcosm of how the system works — and who benefits.
Who does merit aid help?
Studies have shown that merit-based programs disproportionately benefit middle- and upper-income students and have little impact on college graduation rates. And that’s one reason that researchers, academics and advocates who try to help low-income students get to and through college believe such programs are unfair.
In addition, students who receive merit aid aren’t necessarily always top of the class. About 20 percent of students who are awarded merit-based aid have less than a B average, and a similar number have less-than-stellar SAT scores, according to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics.