Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Colleges and scholarships

It sounds counterintuitive, this idea of the state higher-education director to limit the money that state universities can spend on merit-based scholarships. Is not our cherished goal to send as many youngsters as possible to college?

But Jim Purcell, the director of the agency that oversees higher-education budgeting and planning, is right about putting a ceiling on each schoolís total-merit scholarship aid. It is not a matter of producing more college graduates and more students but of fairness to those who do go to college.

The agency is drafting legislation to lower the ceiling on scholarships from 30 percent to 15 percent of each institutionís state tax aid and tuition. Spending on merit scholarships has ballooned in the past 15 years as campuses compete for the best students, those with high SAT or ACT scores or special abilities like music. The scholarships do not produce more college students but they do influence which campus gets them.

The University of Central Arkansas started the competition by providing escalating scholarships for high school graduates with very high ACT scores. The higher the score, the richer the subsidy. It worked. The schoolís enrollment soared and before long the average ACT of its entering freshmen was nearly a full point higher than for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. That was not the idea of Lu Hardin, the departing president at UCA, but of his predecessor, Dr. Winfred Thompson. The Fayetteville school responded with even better subsidies. Still, the big scholarships have continued to give UCA a leg up over other universities in central Arkansas.

Here is why it is unfair. The schools raise tuition every year partly to pay these scholarships, so other students are paying stiffer tuition to give a free ride to somewhat better scholars. Typically, the higher-achieving students happen to be those who are better able to pay so poorer students are subsidizing richer ones. Frequently, they stack scholarships ó for instance, a National Merit scholarship, a music scholarship and a university-funded merit scholarship.

The limits would not affect the amount of state aid spent on need-based scholarships, nor should they. The state has a keen interest in increasing the college-going rate, and this is how to do it. Keeping tuition low is another way.

UCA and Arkansas Tech, which spend a larger share of their budgets on merit scholarships than the other institutions, argue that the limit would give a huge advantage to UA-Fayetteville because it might use its huge private endowment to offer scholarships that other campuses could not match because of the ceiling.

Purcell will find that the schools will carry the day in the legislature, unless his boss, Gov. Beebe, buys into the idea. Letís hope he does.