Whiting column: Base all scholarships on merit and achievement, not need | PostIndependent.com

Whiting column: Base all scholarships on merit and achievement, not need

Bryan Whiting

It’s an intense time for high school seniors.

Besides end-of-year studies, projects, Advanced Placement tests, academic and athletic competitions, graduation awaits. Worry about their future and its accompanying decisions is front and center. Will I be successful? What career should I pursue? What additional education do I need? Where should I go to college? How do I pay for it? This means researching, visiting and applying to colleges, nearly a full-time job itself. Add in scholarship season and the stress level can be overwhelming.

It’s an environment abounding in unintended consequences. A primary example is the “need-based” scholarship. When one examines the criteria for scholarships, more than 75 percent list financial need. Not an illogical criterion. The educational opportunity of college shouldn’t be a rich-kid, poor-kid thing. Each graduate should have the opportunity to sink or swim on his or her own merits.

Every entity and individual offering a “need-based” scholarship has the best intentions, but it’s not providing the result anticipated. The unintended consequence is the demotivation of students regardless of where they reside in the spectrum.

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The student not qualifying for financial need doesn’t feel a need to excel because he doesn’t qualify for the scholarship anyway. The student who does qualify doesn’t have an incentive to excel because their financial need will get them a scholarship, regardless. Not exactly the desired motivational consequence.

Most students, not possessing financial need, possess the grades necessary to be admitted into college, but that level is far below what they could potentially achieve. Because they won’t qualify for most scholarships, there isn’t a motivation to take the harder classes beyond the basic graduation requirement; nor motivation to spend the extra time and effort necessary to turn the “B” into an “A” with the accompanying increase in learning. They’ll wait until college. During 40 years of teaching, I heard and witnessed this every year.

Sadly, the “need-based” scholarship is equally demotivating to the student for whom aid would be a necessity. Their high level of financial need virtually assures their receiving a scholarship. Why should they make the effort to achieve at their highest level? They also possess the minimum GPA so why take the advanced class or push to turn the “B” into an “A”?

The same unintended consequences can occur anytime a scholarship is tied to a segregating characteristic, whether it be race, religion, gender or other circumstance. It can’t be a surprise when some of our students get an attitude of entitlement when we enable it. We all want to eliminate segregation, but we can’t eliminate it when we promote it.

Other unintended consequences are present. To demonstrate need, a student can’t have significant money in the bank for college, and the parents can’t have set aside money for their child’s education. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or something similar, is used by most scholarships to determine financial need. Both student and parental assets are negative deal breakers to FAFSA determination.

Why is this bad? It’s not motivating parents to facilitate their children’s future. It’s not encouraging students to work in the summer and do their part to earn and save money for college. It also means they won’t be gaining experience in the working world and acquiring the characteristics that will facilitate their career and employment in the future.

We all want our kids to possess “work ethic,” but they won’t if we don’t facilitate it. The process penalizes both students and parents for possessing personal responsibility.

Other unintended consequences further discourage personal responsibility. I had students work, earn and save then decide to prepay a lease on a new car so it wouldn’t show up on FAFSA. Students would cash their paycheck, accumulate the cash at home instead of investing it or putting it in the bank for safekeeping. Another strategy was for the student to request to be paid “under the table” to avoid a record of the earnings. Others would say “why work?” Not the behavior we should be encouraging.

The situation tempts parents to role model poor behavior. A dad told me he made an arrangement with his boss to work and not be paid for the year prior to his son’s graduation. This enabled him to show $0 income. He had liquid investments to access for his family’s living expenses, but the complete absence of earned income immediately qualified his son for financial aid. Parents with their own business told me they were hiding income for the same purpose. Another lost his job and chose to go on unemployment and not seek employment until after graduation. In all cases, they were playing by the rules of the game, and it’s hard to blame them, but it isn’t the modeling of personal responsibility we would prefer.

The solution: Make scholarships based on merit, achievement and effort. This would incentivize students to take advanced classes and achieve at the highest level; encourage parents and students to be financially responsible.

A complementary solution would be to focus financial aid in secondary scholarships; those available only to sophomores, juniors and seniors in college. This would reward the student who earned money and achieved academically to access the college opportunity and subsequently proved themselves in their freshman year.

All students can learn and achieve regardless of economic status or any other demographic, so let’s encourage them to be personally responsible, take command if their own life and do so.

Bryan Whiting believes most of our issues are best solved by personal responsibility and an understanding of nonpartisan economics rather than by government intervention. He recently retired after 40 years of teaching marketing, entrepreneurship and economics. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month.

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