What a cheap and shallow way to frame a real and complex issue. Then again, most us-vs.-them stories do little more than reinforce stereotypes and foster class warfare.
The column finds one seemingly-blatant-yet-near-impossible micro example to trot out there to bolster the macro point about to come. It finds one kid who had to actually work during high school to support his family (most kids work for their own spending money) who also happens to be friends with a super-acheiver who allegedly got not just a free ride to undergrad, but to medical school to boot. (Medical schools RARELY give free rides). Then it alleges that superachievers like the med school guy are blocking the path of poor people seeking higher education because colleges are giving merit schloarships to the super-achievers, thus leaving less money for poor kids.
That inconsiderate medical school guy.
Busting tail isn't a 'freebie'
The column goes on to make a macro point that actually is mostly true: high school achievement tends to track with family income. From this, however, we are supposed to think high-achieving kids who earn merit scholarships must by definition be rich people getting "freebies."
Sorry folks, but the kids earning merit scholarships are not trust fund babies skating by on daddy's legacy, as the vile headline to this piece implies. In fact, the largest group of students earning scholarships actually come from middle class families whose kids are doing exactly what society expects of them: bust their tails hitting the books.
Rich, middle class or poor, if you did the work, got the grades and aced the tests, haven't you earned your scholarship? Isn't this what our "system" is supposed to be about -- rewarding those who put in the work?
There may be an association between family income and school success, but the relationship starts a long, long way before families can claim being "rich." It starts with people who are healthy and stable enough to hold down a decent job, which allows them to provide basic housing and support for their kids. It continues with parents who earn enough money to afford a house. It continues with those able to afford houses in the safest neighborhoods in the best school districts. And it can continue on to those who can afford to send their kids to selective private schools, pay for a variety of brain-enriching experiences and send their kids to a bunch of SAT prep courses.
These rising-income lifestyles do create an increasing chance of high achievement for students. But really. Is school success tied just to the money? Or is it family stability? Or is it the quality of the teachers and the schools? Or is it the role-modeling and expectations set by dedicated parents? Or the challenges set by peer pressure? Or maybe it's the intrinsic, internal personal drive of the individual student? Or possibly all of the above?
The fact is, kids can be set up for academic success by families with incomes way below wealthy. I know this from my own personal experience in earning admittance to private, expensive Northwestern U a million years ago. I know this from encountering the many high-performing students at Walnut Hills HS in Cincinnati from families who aren't rich or even close to rich. I know this from encountering other families who are not rich yet make enormous sacrifices to pay to send their kids to private schools with track records of success -- like St. Ursula or St. X.
This is about the shrinking middle class
There is indeed a major social issue brewing about who can and cannot afford to go to college as tuition prices soar into the stratosphere. But it isn't really about rich vs. poor. It's about the squeeze being placed upon the middle class. Unless you really ARE rich, nobody can afford to shell out $240,000 for a private university. And most middle class people genuinely struggle to save up $80,000 to send their kid to a state university. A LOT of not-poor people in Cincinnati live in houses that cost roughly $80,000. Anybody know a family like that that can afford TWO house payments at the same time? For four years?
The high-achievers from these middle class homes do not -- and should not -- qualify for the Pell Grants and other need-based aid set aside for the actual poor. Yet this article implies that merit aid should be reduced!
As if there's some giant pool of merit-based "freebies" to be had. I don't think so.
Big academic scholarships not plentiful
The much publicized National Merit program gives puny $2,500 awards to its "finalists" who represent about one half of one percent of all the kids who take the PSAT. If college merit aid made any sense, EVERY finalist on that list should be getting very large scholarships -- but they don't. A large number of finalists get no money at all.
State colleges do vary on this front, but here's what happens in Ohio. Ohio State awards a grand total of 25 "Eminence Scholar" full rides -- out of about 7000 incoming freshmen. I am quite certain that more than 25 people a year at Ohio State are getting big aid packages based on need. Meanwhile, a couple HUNDRED students a year are getting full-ride athletic scholarships at Ohio State -- and every other big football school -- that have nothing at all to do with higher education. It's absurd.
But it is even more absurd to criticize colleges for awarding academic scholarships to the highest performing students. Are the federal and state governments failing to make Pell Grant programs and such big enough to reach all the lower income kids who need and deserve the help? Yep. Our nation's commitment to public higher education is pretty shameful. But to claim that merit scholarships are taking money away from need-based scholarships is bunk. Put it this way...transferring merit aid into need-based aid won't stop even one truly rich kid from going to college. But it would hurt precisely those students who have done precisely what they were supposed to do to get into college.
If you want to know who's REALLY putting college costs out of reach, look to your statehouse. Then think about who you voted into office -- assuming you bothered to do so.