Do needy students merit more scholarships?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Let’s jump straight into the facts. According to a new report, “Closing the Gap,” by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, 94 percent of Arkansas’ state-funded college scholarships are based solely on merit – ACT scores, etc. – while 6 percent also are based on need. Only two states and the District of Columbia are weighted more toward merit. The national average, on the other hand, is 75 percent need-based.

The fact that Arkansas is doing things differently than the rest of the nation should matter, considering it has the second lowest percentage of residents with a college degree. (Thank goodness for West Virginia!) About 14 percent of us have a bachelor’s degree, while 7 percent of us also have a master’s degree or higher. Another 7 percent have an associate’s degree.

The 94-6 percent ratio is the result of the growth of Academic Challenge Scholarships awards, which are largely funded through the lottery and are entirely merit based. In the past, the scholarships went to students who scored a 19 on the ACT or earned a 2.5 grade point average in high school. A law passed this year by the Legislature makes the 19 on the ACT the only requirement, which may have been a mistake because grade point average supposedly is a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores.

The problem with basing scholarships on merit alone is that it makes them harder to attain for students who grew up in tougher circumstances with fewer advantages. Those are the very students who need the money more – as long as they can put it to good use.

Let’s also be blunt about what’s really happening. People of all income levels buy lottery tickets, of course, but a certain percentage of those ticket-buyers are poor people looking for a little hope. That’s their choice, but state resources are encouraging them to “invest” in this pipe dream. Then their money pays for scholarships for bankers’ kids. I’ve got a banker friend who’s outraged by this.

The report says 25 percent of Arkansas scholarships should have a need-based component. If that’s the case, then what should those scholarships pay for?

According to the report, more than half of Arkansans – 57 percent, actually – have a high school diploma or less.

Of course, that describes a lot of smart, successful people. But moving forward, most of the good jobs of the future will require something more, though not necessarily a bachelor’s degree or even an associate’s degree. The report says that, by 2020, Arkansas needs to produce an additional 99,000 people with career and technical certificates, which often can be earned fairly quickly and at low cost to fill existing workforce needs. Arkansas actually will need 786 fewer people with master’s degrees than it has now, the report estimates.

The Academic Challenge Scholarship goes to students attending college, not earning a technical certificate, which is the better choice for many people. And it’s really targeted toward 18-year-old high school graduates, rather than adults who need to retool their skills to be more employable.

So however the state rebalances its state-funded scholarships so that they’re based more on need, it should remember that what people really need is the ability to earn a good-paying job, and preferably in the near future.


If you have 30 minutes when you’re washing the dishes or something, listen to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s maiden speech on the U.S. Senate floor.

Sasse waited a year after being elected to make his first speech, which once was a Senate tradition. When he finally spoke, it was a bold call to action. He said the Senate is failing to address the nation’s big issues, allowing the executive branch to take too much power. Senators from opposite parties are privately friendly, even affectionate. But when the cameras roll, they talk in shallow sound bytes using politi-speech that sounds nothing like the way real Americans talk. The Senate doesn’t need less debating, he said. It needs actual debating about important issues in a respectful manner. Senators are elected to six-year terms so they can think long-term in what once was called the world’s greatest deliberative body. If they’re not going to fulfill their role, he asked, does the United States even need a Senate at all?

Good stuff. Last I checked, it had 3,837 views on YouTube. Here it is.

3 thoughts on “Do needy students merit more scholarships?

  1. Steve, this is another case of how so many things are backwards in Arkansas. When a state decides to victimize its own citizens thru gambling, it’s a sign that we have lost our way. We’re in a vicious cycle where we need to invest a lot more in education but are doing everything to prevent that from happening.

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