The uneven burden and benefit of state merit scholarships

State scholarship programs that distribute aid based on students’ academic achievement, rather than their family income, are often touted by politicians as a way to increase access for high-achieving students at all income levels. However, in practice, the programs have disproportionately benefited white, wealthier families, The Washington Post reports.

Most U.S. states still take a need-based approach in awarding grants: in 30 states, less than 10% of aid goes toward “merit” scholarships. But parts of the South—including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina—have for years awarded generous state scholarships based on criteria such as grades and test scores.

Distributing aid unevenly

In launching the programs, legislators ensured their political popularity by emphasizing their potential to benefit white, middle-class residents. When former Georgia Governor Zell Miller proposed that state’s merit-based scholarship, he called it “the most all-inclusive” in the nation. The Zell Miller Scholarship covers full tuition at eligible Georgia colleges for students who have high test scores and at least a 3.7 GPA.

Today, just 6% of the students who receive Zell Miller Scholarships are Black, in a state where 29% of all in-state undergraduate students are Black. Seventy percent of recipients are white, compared with 49% of the state’s undergraduates. While the scholarships may help keep students in-state for college, they aren’t necessarily increasing access for students underrepresented in higher education, says Christopher Cornwell, an economics professor at the University of Georgia.

It is a similar story in Florida, where the Department of Education says the state’s merit-based Bright Futures Scholarship Program “offers opportunity and prosperity for all Florida families!” However, year after year, no more than 7% of Bright Futures Scholarship recipients are Black, compared with 17% of the general population.

The Post notes that both Georgia’s and Florida’s programs are funded by state lotteries. And because lower-income and non-white households purchase an outsized share of lotto tickets, they are contributing disproportionately to the pool of available funds—and receiving an underwhelming share of scholarship dollars on the other end.

Related:Who tends to pay for state lottery-funded scholarships? Lower-income families. >

Reconsidering the model

Some states are taking a closer look at their merit-aid programs and who actually benefits. In fall 2021, Louisiana’s merit-based Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) made headlines when data showed that TOPS had covered full tuition for 11,000 children of millionaires across the past decade. In 2019-20, just 17% of TOPS recipients were Black, compared with about one-third of Louisiana residents.

Saying that “decoupling students’ success and family income” is “the biggest challenge we face in higher education,” Louisiana’s higher education commissioner Kim Hunter Reed has called for “a huge infusion” of need-based aid. The state offers both need- and merit-based aid, but directs far more to the latter: last year, Louisiana spent $331 million in merit aid, and just $41 million on need-based grants.

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