High school merit scholarship programs have potential flaws

December 15, 2003

Broad-based merit scholarship programs designed to create incentives for underperforming high school students have two potential flaws, according to Penn State researchers.

"Our studies indicate that in the first year after a merit scholarship program is initiated, student test scores increase but they subsequently hit a ceiling, with no further improvement," says Dr. Donald E. Heller, associate professor of education and senior research associate with the University's Center for the Study of Higher Education. "The opening publicity for a program and the first attempts at encouragement by administrators and teachers only carry a program so far until the results level off."

A second drawback may be that the merit scholarships have to be large enough to significantly reduce overall college expenses over four years, says Kimberly R. Rogers, doctoral candidate in higher education. With total expenses at a Big Ten school like Penn State or Michigan State approaching $75,000 for four years of college, a single grant of a few thousand dollars might be insufficient, the researchers say.

Heller and Rogers presented their findings in the paper, "Merit Scholarships and Incentives for Academic Performance," at the recent conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in Portland, Ore.

The two researchers analyzed the academic accomplishments of the first three classes eligible for the Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program, the country's fourth largest of its kind. First offered to the high school graduating class of 2000, the program provides a one-time $2,500 college scholarship to 11th grade students who achieve a minimum score on a statewide assessment of reading, writing, math and science knowledge. The scholarship is $1,000 for students attending out-of-state institutions.

To quality for the scholarships, public and private school students must earn scores of 1 or 2 (on a four-point scale) on all four sections of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program high school test. Students may also qualify for the scholarships by scoring a 1 or 2 in at least two of the sections, while ranking in the top quartile nationally on the SAT or ACT test. For the classes of 2000 through 2002, the qualifying SAT score was 1170 and composite ACT score, 24.

"Overall, the proportion of students qualifying for the scholarships in all four sections increased from 47 percent in the first year (2000) to 54 percent in the second year (2001) and then decreased 0.2 percent (2002) in the third year," Heller notes. "There were also large differences in the rates at which students in different racial groups qualified for the scholarships. For example, while 60 percent of White students in 2002 qualified for the scholarships, only 17 percent of African-American and 37 percent of Hispanic students received the scholarships.

"This gap indicates that the Michigan program is doing little to increase the academic performance and college access needs of the population of students who need the most help," he adds.

The Penn State researchers also detected the waning percentage of those students receiving free or reduced-price school lunches who were eligible for the scholarships.

"In 2002, for instance, those schools with the wealthiest school populations saw 59 percent of students qualifying for the scholarships," Rogers says. "In contrast, schools with the largest number of poor students saw less than half as many students (24 percent) qualify for the scholarships."

"Our study shows that, as demonstrated by the Michigan program, merit aid rewards students who already possess higher academic qualifications while doing little to improve the academic achievement of lower-performing students in the long run," Heller says.

Penn State

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