‘Merit’ and ‘Need:’ Synonyms or Antonyms?

Sewanee - committed to meeting the full need of all students

Sewanee – committed to meeting the full need of all students

Every August, colleges and universities await an annual publication with a combination of excitement and fear. I refer of course to the annual USNews college rankings. This is the higher ed equivalent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. It sells well; it titillates; and it has little relationship to reality.

Over time these rankings have become a measure of the value of an institution’s degree and also a measure of its own self-worth. The rankings tell the prospective student nothing at all about what four years spent at a particular school will be like. They do not measure outcomes, only inputs.

Their effect has been pernicious. They have encouraged the wrong sort of competition among institutions and the development of strategies to attract those students presenting the strongest quantifiable credentials.  Inevitably this has meant that those qualities requiring judgment rather than calculation – character, motivation, intellectual hunger, for example – take a backseat to test scores.  Admissions offices become risk-averse.  Success is measured in terms of the measurable – size of applicant pool, yield, test scores.

Not surprisingly, this shift in emphasis favored those who tested well (or who were coach-able in order to test well.)  That, by itself, was not necessarily harmful.  But not all families could afford to hire coaches.  And not all potentially successful college students presented stellar test scores.

How, then, go about attracting the successful test-takers? And how go about persuading those applicants to come to your school rather than to a rival?  The word “recruiting” came into more and more frequent use to describe this process. And “merit aid” – more accurately described as non-need aid – became a recruiting tool.

Institutions with limited resources (which is to say most institutions) for a long time allocated financial aid on the basis, primarily if not exclusively, of need.  Merit and need, of course, were not and are not mutually exclusive.  But the introduction of “merit” made decisions about financial aid awards far more complicated.  Decisions to offer merit aid, however merit might be defined, meant that criteria other than strictly need could be taken into account. Put more directly, if also less politely, aid began to be offered to students who did not need it, often at the expense of those who did, and more than occasionally in ways that favored those families seeking to play off one institution’s offer against another (Google Ngram notes a sevenfold increase in the use of the expression “merit aid” between 1994 and 2008). This practice, known as “high tuition/high discount,” is simply not sustainable. Nor is it just. It rewards those who test well. It too often denies aid to those who need it most. It establishes a misleading, indeed invidious, distinction between those who are needy and those who are “meritorious.” And it has led institutions to raise tuition annually at rates well beyond that of inflation.

The consequences were reported in a 2009 study by Amanda Griffith, a professor of economics at Wake Forest: “results using data from the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges and other secondary data sources suggest that the increased use of merit aid is associated with a decrease in enrollment of low-income and minority students, particularly at more selective institutions.”

What can be done? At the University of the South, better known as Sewanee, we have committed ourselves to returning to meeting the full need of all admitted students. We reduced our “sticker price” across the board by 10% for the academic year 2011-12, and we  now guarantee entering students that the price they are charged when they enter will be frozen for four years. We have not abandoned merit aid (some of it is endowed), but our first offer is our only offer, and if a student chooses to go elsewhere because of a more generous offer, even though that institution will raise its tuition in each of the next three years, we remain serene.

And we advise prospective students to pay more attention to outcomes. A good place to start is a publication entitled The Alumni Factor (www.thealumnifactor.com). This is the first attempt to rank schools in a wide range of outcome categories. The methodology has been peer-reviewed; the data are reliable. The results may surprise you.

Higher education has deserved much of the criticism it has received for tuition policies that are anything but transparent or fair. It is time for us to acknowledge that reality and do all we can to make the education we provide accessible and affordable for the very strongest students we can attract.

This blog was provided by Dr. John McCardell Jr., president and vice chancellor of Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee, TN. Dr. McCardell was a guest on College Smart Radio “Tackling the Runaway Costs of College” on April 13th, 2013.  Listen to this broadcast on YouTube here.

Photo Credit: Sewanee

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