Outlook: Need vs. Merit Based Scholarships

Fay Vincent
Former MLB Commissioner
Tuesday, May 31, 2005; 2:00 PM

The original goal of student financial aid was ensure that worthy but disadvantaged high school graduates could afford higher education. But over the last several decades, an increasing number of schools have been offering significant aid based only on merit, without regard to a family's economic circumstances. Why? According to Fay Vincent , writing in Sunday's Outlook section ( No Merit in These Scholarships ), they are hoping to attract more students with high SAT scores and class status, which will improve their schools' chance of being well ranked by such influential publications as U.S. News and World Report. Vincent, the former commissioner of baseball and a longtime trustee at several educational institutions, argues that these schools are, in essence, buying a better student body. Merit-based aid, he says, betrays the original goals, spends donors' money in a way they may not intend; and invests resources in short-term promotional advantage instead of building better colleges.

Fay Vincent , former MLB commissioner, was online Tuesday, May 31, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article.

A transcript follows.


Chicago, Ill.: I came from a poor public school system, with little in the way of college preparatory classes, counseling, and extra-curricular activities. Although my grades were excellent, my standardized test scores were too low to qualify for state school scholarships. I was fortunate to apply to a private school that understood these differences in background, and was able to obtain scholarship money. I believe merit-based scholarships only reward the already affluent. All students who qualify for entrance to a particular school should then be able to attend that school, regardless of income.

Fay Vincent: I agree with you. I think, however, using money to finance aid for people who do not need it is a use of money that I cannot defend. Thank you for the question.


A Small College Somewhere in New England : Mr. Vincent, I'm a college administrator who will share with you a dirty little secret. All colleges want the top applicants and will pay what it takes to get them, whether this be merit- or need-based scholarships. The better prepared a person is for college, and this can usually (though admittedly not always) be determined by grades, essays and test scores, the less a college has to spend on remedial classes, tutoring and the like. Students with sufficient AP credits can skip an entire semester! So there is little incentive to "do the right thing" when it costs you so much more money.

Fay Vincent: Sad, but true. I regret that colleges are using money to buy students who would come without being paid. It seems to me the colleges who are doing that are wasting money and eventually will have to give up the game. Thank you.


Great Falls, Va.: Fay, great job as Baseball Commissioner. I do so wish you still held that position!

My 3 children all attended or are attending small private liberal arts colleges where tuition is $35-45,000 per year. All received merit scholarships of $20-25,000 per year. I know you say "need" is relative, and we probably could have taken out second mortgages and the kids taken on more debt to attend. But our kids worked really hard to get top grades and to excel at extra-curricular activities. They did not just slide through! Why not reward them -- and us -- and the colleges as well, by allowing to matriculate great kids who have all graduated with honors (or are on track to do so)? They would not have gone there without the merit aid.

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the comment. I can't blame you or your three kids. Obviously they played the system very well, but the colleges are doing something that I have a problem with. In one sense, the merit scholarship is being admitted to a good school. I don't think the schools should be buying students, even good students like you're kids. But I can't blame your kids. Thank you.


Richmond, Va.: Thank you for taking our questions!

I make around $70k and have 4 kids. If they are in the "B" range grade-wise what can I expect (generally speaking)regarding scholarships at a typical state college or university?

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the question. I am not expert enough to be able to answer it. My guess is that your kids will qualify for aid, but I cannot be helpful on the amount.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The Ivy League offers no athletic scholarships. Of course, financial scholarships are offered, so athletes from lower income backgrounds find they may still attend an Ivy League college and receive a decent and marketable education, which is often the most important things for many collegiate athletes since only a minority earn a living in athletics after college. Would do you think of the Ivy League scholarship system?

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the good question. The problem of athletics and financial aid is a complicated and difficult one. The Ivy league schools give financial aid only on the basis of need, but many athletes get financial aid at those schools. I am not bothered by that, but I am troubled by giving athletes special consideration at the Ivy League schools. Sometimes the athletic grade level is very low compared to the rest of the school. Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: Colleges have long been in the business of "buying" top athletes. Since their business is education, why shouldn't they "buy" top students?

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the good question. I think my essay argues they should not buy good students who do not need help. They shouldn't buy good athletes who don't need help either.


Columbia, Md.: Just wanted to say hello to a fellow Ephperson. As a '70's grad of Williams, I remember that the school's financial aid policy was that if you were admitted, you need not worry about financial aid. Has that changed or are only top tier colleges and universities able to do this?

Fay Vincent: Thanks for the good question. What you described is so called "need-blind admission" and only very few schools can still adhere to that policy. Happily, Williams is one of them.


Woburn, Mass.: But is it true that a class of academically better students allows the teacher to cover more and advanced topics, thus improving the quality of education received? This implies that merit-based scholarships do improve college education quality!

Fay Vincent: Thanks for the good question. Yes, there's no doubt that at many schools, Merit Scholarships bring in better students. That is the case at Fairfield University. The faculty at those schools likes Merit aid for that reason.


Alexandria, Va.: I agree that awarding merit scholarships to the truly affluent is a travesty. However, why not reward students who work hard and do well in academics, if that is their major strength, just as scholarships are awarded for athletic or artistic strengths? In this area, family incomes of $100,000 to $150,000, with newly-inflated housing values are not uncommon, yet spending $40,000 or more a year for college is not doable.

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the good question. Many schools are now giving financial aid on a broader understanding of need. And so financial aid goes to families in the income range you've described. I have no problem with that. Thank you.


I Turned Down a Full Ride in Silver Spring, Md.: You could say that merit-based scholarships are bad for the elite students who take them, especially if it's not a particularly spectacular school they're taking one from. I'll be graduating from high school on Thursday. I applied to four different colleges. One school with a dubious reputation offered me a full, merit-based scholarship. My family isn't rich, but they can afford to send me to school. I decided that a full ride wasn't worth it, given the quality of the school. But even some families who could afford better will still send their kids to an okay school if they offer money. Is that necessarily a good thing? Not if that student could get a better education for a little more.

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the good question. I think it is a bad thing to influence the choice by offering scholarship aid to students who don't need it. You are fortunate to have made a good decision. Best of luck.


White Oak, Md.: Is it basically impossible to get a scholarship while in college? Or is our only hope to get them while in high school?

Fay Vincent: I am not certain of my answer here, but I think you can apply for financial aid at any time. If you're income situation has changed, or the reasons for aid are stronger, you may get some help. Thank you.


Annapolis, Md.: This is more of a comment, but I think Mr. Vincent is missing the mark on is theory that merit based aid is buying students. As a parent of a student from a middle class family (in one of the high cost of living east coast areas) who did not qualify for need based aid, it was the merit aid that leveled the playing field for her. Without merit based aid, private colleges would become the home of the rich and the poor. In fact at my daughter's public school most of the top students didn't even consider private colleges because of the cost and the knowledge that because both parents worked they would not qualify for aid. The merit based aid allows for hard working students to consider education options that otherwise would not be possible and creates economic diversity at the schools as well.

Fay Vincent: You make a very good point. Your target, however, is the good schools who do not define "need" as broadly as they should. Most of the very good schools now give financial aid to families with up to $100,000 income. And that will only improve. Thank you.


Alexandria, Va.: I got what was effectively a free-ride through an Ivy undergraduate education on a traditional "need-blind" admission and "full-need" financial aid policy. I grew up in a slum project on the lower west side of Manhattan, near Penn Station, in a single-parent household; a relative stole what little money I had for tuition, and I could not have afforded application fees, let alone tuition, room and board, without substantial non-loan assistance. I'm grateful for the opportunity, and for my university's generosity. But I could not possibly support similar need-only policies.

There are literally thousands of undergraduate schools in the U.S. Mr. Vincent, as you well know, most are simply terrible - you would never send your child, or a friend's child, to nearly any of them; the bulk are simply high-school redux, with no true selectivity in admissions, unsophisticated faculty, terrible student placement, low SAT scores, and unaccountable faculties and administrators. If a relative handful of colleges and universities desire to improve the quality of their student bodies by directly targeting high-intelligence applicants who would most likely benefit from a solid undergraduate program, so be it. The truly impoverished (which I was in high school) will always have the Ivies, the "little Ivies," and the more selective state universities available to them - the places where "need-blind" and "full-need" will actually work.

Fay Vincent: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think the real issue is how we can improve the educational system. And I think using money to buy students who can afford to pay is not a wise policy. Over the long term, we need better schools and the only way to build a good school is with a solid faculty. I would spend the money on the faculty and try to attract students without paying them to come. Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: So-called merit scholarships generally go to wealthy, spoiled brats who have never had any responsibility other than school, and who have the benefit of expensive private schools, tutors, foreign travel, and time on their hands. This is not merit and will not make better scholars or better citizens. Many of these young people are as ignorant of the world outside their luxurious bubble as anyone could be. The writing I have seen from them shows it.

Students who work for a living, pay for their own schooling, and support themselves have far more merit. Sometimes they need a bit of extra time to complete an assignment, especially if they have unpredictable work schedules or families. This aggravates insensitive professors who are more concerned about leaving promptly for several vacations each year than they are about educating anybody.

From what I have seen in fifteen years of higher education at several universities, few people who make it all the way into academia did so on their own. They have little understanding of how the working class lives and no interest in learning. I believe they are afraid that if anyone other than wealthy young people get an education, they may have to start cleaning their own houses and caring for their own children.

Fay Vincent: I'm not sure I share you bleak view, but we can agree that the better investment from the school point of view is in faculty compensation and attracting students who want to come to that particular school. I think we agree that merit scholarships are not prudent. Thank you.


Remedial Classes: Although I grew up in an economically and culturally deprived area, I attended Bucknell University fifteen years ago.

I don't recall anything close to a "remedial class" being offered. Even though my educational background was inferior to much of my competition, I was expected to "sink or swim."

Do even "elite" schools offer remedial classes? Is that a driver to get better students?

Fay Vincent: Thank you for the excellent question. I am not an expert, but I think the very good schools offer support in study habits and writing for anyone who needs them. Thanks.


Forestville, Md.: I have some problems with your assumptions. I was a student who received a merit-based scholarship, which was the only way I could have gone to college without punishing student loans. My parents would not have qualified for a needs-based package; my father started making "real" money (his words - upwards of $60k in the 1970's) only one year before I graduated from high school. Before that, he was in the military and had saved nothing toward college for any of us. However, I had great grades, good SATs, after-school activities, and a focused major in high school, all of which helped me qualify for merit money.

How about two separate pots of money - one for needs based scholarships and grants, and one for merit based. I know that when my daughter goes to college next year, we will need the merit money, and not for Harvard or Yale. She is an athlete, and finally pulled herself together this year to have a pretty good GPA. She is focusing the entire summer on work, finding scholarship money, and participating in tournaments to improve her game. We will not qualify for needs based money, bless God, far from it, but we still need the help to afford a mid-level (whatever that means) school.

Fay Vincent: Thank you for your comment. But the hard fact for you is that you can afford to pay for your child's education, and you will figure out how to finance that education. I have no difficulty with any of that. Thank you.


Washington, D.C.: Just substitute in your article "black" for "Need" and you may begin to understand what has happened.

This is the natural extrapolation to a painful result arising from white middle class charges of reverse discrimination in their "merit" arguments against Affirmative Action. Now it effects them in unexpected ways.

Fay Vincent: I'm not sure I understand your point, but it sounds as if you are suggesting "merit" is for whites and "need" is for blacks. That is not my experience. Thank you.


Scholarships are Important: But what about baseball in D.C.?

Nice crowds, nice little ball club and a usable facility.

What took MLB so long?

Fay Vincent: I agree with you. What took so long. The answer is there was not a strong ownership group when I was involved with expansion in the '80s, and Baltimore is clearly going to be hurt. So the owners were reluctant to have a new team in Washington. Thank you.


Fay Vincent: Thank you all for writing. Bye bye.


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