April is the month when most students learn whether they've gotten into their preferred colleges. Increasingly, the best and brightest among these applicants will find colleges not merely admitting them, but actively bidding for their services. The use of merit scholarships, unrelated to financial need, has recently been growing apace in private colleges, more than doubling in the space of two years according to one survey.
These "no-need" academic scholarships, like athletic scholarships, are obviously a tool colleges use in maneuvering for competitive advantage. But some high-minded defenders of the practice argue that merit scholarships for undergraduates, whatever their motive, are a much-needed corrective to a higher education system that, in its zeal to make college education available to all, has forgotten the importance of rewarding academic excellence.
In fact, however, our higher education system provides substantial and highly visible rewards to academic achievement. The proof can be found in any suburban high school this month, in the anxiety written into the faces of high school seniors waiting to find out whether they have gotten into their top-rated schools.
Selective admission to leading private universities and colleges, as well as to many of the best state universities, provides a powerful incentive for high school students to perform well academically. Evidence of the value families place on admission to these top places shows up, among other ways, in the money they pay to outfits that claim to know how to help students boost their SAT scores or write more effective application essays. Graduation from top-rated colleges has clear economic and social payoffs as well: in substantially better odds of admission to leading medical and law schools, and in better access to the corporate and financial worlds. (One simple example: the current secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense are all graduates of Ivy League colleges.)
Despite their high prices, elite colleges and universities every year turn away several qualified applicants for every one they accept. The ones who survive the selection process have won a valuable prize indeed.
Is there any good reason to add to their rewards through providing merit scholarships even to those whose parents can afford to pay? It's hard to see why. The reward talented and hard working students deserve is the chance for a first-rate education. Those whose parents can't afford to pay deserve the scholarship aid they need to make that further education possible.
But to give scholarships to those who can afford to pay is to pile reward on top of reward. Beyond the unfairness of that practice, such no-need scholarships express a confusion of values. Selective admissions, by making the best educational opportunities available to the most promising students, reward academic excellence in educational terms. No-need merit scholarships pay for academic excellence with cash. In a society where everything from access to the White House to government secrets already seems to be up for sale, buying students is a practice we would do well to avoid.