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Fairness in Awarding Scholarships

The deadline for high school seniors to submit their college applications is rapidly approaching. Although the process has been well documented before, there is one aspect that bears further examination. It has to do with the new basis for awarding scholarships, which is a prime consideration for families facing skyrocketing tuition.

Until recently, scholarships were based largely on financial need. But led by Georgia, the movement is shifting toward scholarships based on academic merit ("Shift to Merit Scholarships Stirs Debate," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20). The rationale for the change is that academic achievement should be rewarded, or there will be a brain drain of talented students who leave their home states, negatively affecting local economies.

But that's only the beginning of the controversy. If academic merit alone is the basis for scholarships, what if this policy results in certain racial groups getting the lion's share? I'm referring now to Asians, who constitute 5.6 percent of the nation's population but 12 to 18 percent of the student body of Ivy League schools ("Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?" The New York Times, Dec. 20). Actually, if admission were based strictly on grades, test scores, honors and extracurricular activities, Asians would have to be considered underrepresented at these elite schools.

I've always believed that colleges and universities have been disingenuous when talking about their admissions policies. Legacies (sons and daughters of alumni), development cases (wealthy applicants whose families are likely to be generous donors) and varsity athletes are routinely given preference. As a result, I'm skeptical that academic merit will ever be the only basis for admission and/or scholarships. That's because too much money is at risk if change should occur. That doesn't mean other considerations shouldn't come into play. For example, diversity is a worthy goal. But let's not deceive ourselves that such policies are strictly academic. They are attempts at social engineering, which is an entirely different issue.

It's impossible to ever formulate a policy that will satisfy all stakeholders. What's important is for colleges and universities to admit what they are doing behind the scenes. The best examination of the issue still remains The Price of Admission (Crown Publishers, 2006) by Daniel Golden. Its subtitle says it best: "How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates."

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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