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Eight ways to get higher education into shape

Merit aid favors the wealthy: Children from affluent families tend to have greater "merit," in the form of higher grades and test scores.

Less-selective colleges leverage merit dollars to attract tuition-paying students and fill seats. More-selective schools offer merit aid to lure top students who raise the schools' academic standing. Winners of the bidding wars lose tuition money that might otherwise be spent on teaching or on students with need. Merit discounts inflate the tuition charged to those who pay full price.

"Every dollar that we spend on merit aid as opposed to need-based aid is wasted," said Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College in Indiana.

A small group of elite, well-endowed colleges have resisted merit aid, awarding aid solely for need. Some schools promise to meet the full need of students with aid, so that no one -- in theory -- is priced out.

There are arguments for merit aid. Merit scholarships are popular among donors who want to reward hard work. Some merit-based programs steer students into high-demand fields.

But critics of merit aid say there is no compelling reason for colleges to court high-performing students save collegiate rankings, a pursuit scores of college presidents publicly disavow.

If college is becoming unaffordable, the reformers say, all the more reason to award aid dollars to those in need.

Jamie Merisotis, chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, suggests colleges be urged to incorporate "some form of need" into all financial aid awards.

Baum suggests the best way to curb merit aid would be to loosen federal antitrust rules that bar colleges from sharing price data. If colleges shared aid awards with their rivals, they could potentially end the merit-aid bidding wars.

3. Standardize the three-year bachelor's degree

Henry Dunster, Harvard's first president, altered the course of collegiate history in 1652 when his Harvard Corporation lengthened the time required for a bachelor's degree from three years to four.

Now there is a movement to shorten it back to three.

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