The Problem With Merit Aid
There is a misnomer in a term commonly used in higher education: merit aid. The use of “merit” implies excellence or worthy of praise, but unfortunately, in this context, merit is often synonymous with privilege.
Unlike federal and need-based financial aid, which take into account students’ financial circumstances, merit aid is awarded based on accolades — namely rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities. Academically, many low-income students can compete with their middle- to high-income peers (20 percent of students scoring at or above the 90th percentile on the ACT — a score of 28 or above — come from low-income and working-class families), but they are less likely to have access to the extracurricular opportunities that make a student an attractive candidate for merit aid. That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re undeserving — nor does it mean they can’t demonstrate merit in other ways.
While high-income students generally have better access to more rigorous coursework and more qualified and experienced teachers, their advantages aren’t just limited to what happens in the classroom. When the final school bell rings, low-income students may need to work or manage family obligations, while their more privileged peers can participate in various activities like student government, athletics, marching band, or academic clubs.
Thus, when a low-income student applies for merit aid, his fast-food job might be viewed as less-deserving of a scholarship, even though flipping burgers may have been necessary to put gas in a family vehicle or keep food in the pantry — reflecting such merits as dedication and work ethic. Similarly, a low-income student may forgo extracurricular activities to care for younger siblings, exemplifying commitment, self-sacrifice, and service to others — merits that are undervalued or unnoticed on a scholarship application.
Essentially, the current definition of merit is limited in its scope and unfairly disadvantages low-income students, ignoring the hard work and grit of the underserved. As college leaders examine ways to make college admissions processes more “access aware” or “need aware,” they must reconsider how to define merit and how to award merit aid. Merit means much more than a list of extracurricular activities — and aid that is intended to recognize merit should exemplify that.