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College trend towards need-based financial aid a good decision

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The tides of college financial aid continue to flow away from need-based aid and toward merit-based aid. According to the recent study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, from 1994 to 2007 merit-based aid jumped from 27 percent to 43 percent of all institutional financial aid awarded. Subsequently, need-based aid dropped from 66 percent of all aid to 49 percent in the same time period.

As merit-based aid is used to buy up top students while middle and low-income households struggle to get the aid they need, rankings-lust threatens to destroy the diversity colleges have worked so hard for over the past decades.

The desire for high rankings drove colleges to provide incentives (a.k.a merit-based aid) to attract the top students.

But while colleges flashed their billfolds for Johnny and Suzy Overachiever, students who didn’t stand out as much on paper were left to scramble for money as need-based aid comparatively
dried up in favor of merit-based aid.

Yet Whitman seems poised to buck the merit-based aid tide as murmurings of a switch toward solely need-based aid surface.

Whitman currently reserves about 30 percent of all aid for merit-based aid, already admirably
low for a school of its type. A complete shift away from merit-based aid, however, would mark a significant commitment to the diversity and overall student welfare we strive for.

Merit-based aid seems like a good idea in a lot of ways. It rewards those who have worked hard, and really stood out. It’s a little something extra for students who undoubtedly deserve it, and it often makes college that much more affordable for middle-class families.

But ultimately, merit-based aid helps the few who probably didn’t need help to begin with while hurting majority who truly need it.

It’s no secret that students from more financially secure households generally perform better in school. While it’s clearly not a student’s fault that they came from a good family and did well in school, merit-based aid simply continues the cycle of helping well-off kids through college while excluding those from poorer families.

Need-based aid takes into account the fact that not all students come in on an equal background
and seeks to level the playing field at least a little.

If Whitman were to shift its financial aid to solely need-based, it doesn’t mean that those of us who receive merit-based scholarships would be left high and dry. It would mean more money in the pool for need-based aid which would cover more people with need would be covered.

A need-based approach would allow the school to better achieve the diversity we strive for. African American, Latino and American Indian households all have lower incomes, higher high school dropout rates and lower academic performance than the national average, and all three ethnic groups are underrepresented in colleges. An increase in need-based aid would inherently benefit these disadvantaged groups, not to mention increase socio-economic diversity.

A departure from merit-based aid needn’t mean an end to all scholarships that recognize truly exceptional individuals. Awards like the Garret and Sherwood scholarships are separate funds and work hard to bring truly exemplary students to Whitman who can add exponentially to the school.

But when funds are used to ‘buy’ high-performing students we push the chance at a college education farther from the grasps of those who could benefit the most from it, and often had to work harder to get to that position in the first place. By using need-based aid to make college more affordable, we can let Whitman speak for itself instead of letting money do the talking.

It seems inherent in our mission to facilitate social development, leadership and intellectual
vitality that we should seek to undo some of the injustices in the world, and what better place to start than in our own financial aid system?

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Whitman news since 1896
College trend towards need-based financial aid a good decision