The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Mitt Romney’s signature education law failed

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While Mitt Romney's tenure as Massachusetts governor is perhaps most notable for the enactment of same-sex marriage and mandate-enforced universal health care, the policy that Romney himself brings up the most is the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program.

Under that plan, Massachusetts students who score in the top 25 percent of their school district on standardized tests get to attend state universities without paying tuition. He mentioned the program in his first answer at the town hall debate this week, as evidence that he'll fight to make college more affordable.

Only problem: according to education researchers, the Adams scholarships are a raw deal. As Sarah Butrymowicz reports at Slate, a study tracking scholarship recipients found that they mostly went to people who would have attended college anyway. And the main result was to push those kids into lower quality state colleges that will reduce their earnings in the long run.

Sarah Cohodes and Joshua Goodman at the Harvard Kennedy School released a report on the program earlier this summer which found that students who received the scholarship were remarkably willing to forgo better educational offers to take advantage of it. They find that the scholarships were worth, at most, about $7,000. But they all went to students who were already going to go to college. Of the 8.3 percent of students who were spurred to go to public in-state schools by the scholarship, 2.2 percent were already going to attend in-state private schools and 5.1 percent were going to go out of state for college. The program, the authors find, had "no statistically significant impact on overall enrollment rates at four-year colleges."

What's more, the students who took advantage of the scholarship, by choosing schools with lower graduation rates, reduced their odds of graduating from college by 26 percentage points. 52 percent of Adams eligible students graduated in four years, whereas only 41 percent of Adams users did. This in turn reduced Adams users' expected lifetime earnings by $250,000. What's more, the lower educational quality of the schools reduced earnings by $110,000. The $7,000, by any metric, wasn't worth it.

And even if the program worked as intended, it didn't primarily benefit poor or minority students. Indeed, it disproportionately helped rich, white students. Low-income students made up 18 percent of graduating seniors for the year studied, but only 13 percent of the students who received the Adams scholarship. Black and Latino students were 14 percent of the graduating seniors, but 8 percent of the recipients.

Butrymowicz notes that merit scholarships in other states have generally also failed to help low-income and minority students. It's easy to see the appeal. The scholarships target aid at well-performing students, and reduce costs for those students in the near-term considerably. But if you take a longer view, they're a raw deal.