Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shift to merit scholarships stirs debate

IN most parts of the US, states offer financial aid to incoming college students based on need. But Georgia has led a movement for two decades that turned that idea on its head - by offering scholarships entirely on merit.

Now that movement may be picking up steam, with sweeping effects on students. Last year, with the scholarship program facing financial distress, Georgia lawmakers decided to increase the academic requirements for scholarships. Administrators say the change will help keep the program solvent. But it also wound up funnelling a greater portion of the remaining aid to higher-income students.

Proponents of merit, or some combination of merit and need, say focusing on achievement helps reduce a so-called "brain drain" of talented residents leaving home states, and rewards those who study hard and apply themselves.

"Our society is built on meritocracy," said Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, an independent, Washington-based research institute. "What is true in real life in the job market should be true in education."

Though the trend rarely gets much attention and is obscured by increases in federal grants to poor students, 27 states have created some sort of merit-aid program since Georgia launched its own in 1993. Of those, 13 states based over half of their grant money on merit in 2010-2011, the latest year available. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and Georgia, more than 85 per cent of grants were merit-based.

Now, with funding for the scholarships falling behind steady hikes in college tuition and in the number of kids receiving them, lawmakers in Tennessee, South Carolina, New Mexico and other states are weighing some tough calls on how to distribute their grants. For its part, Georgia rejected proposals by some lawmakers for an income cap and decided instead to require better grades and, for the first time, strong SAT or ACT test scores for full-tuition scholarships.

The move was applauded by lawmakers who said middle-income families with high-achieving kids deserve or need help paying tuition, which has more than doubled nationally over the past 10 years at four-year public colleges. But need-based backers say disadvantaged kids need aid to help break the cycle of poverty, by attending college and ultimately finding better employment. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, the percentage of scholarship money to kids from affluent areas did pick up, in some cases sharply.

The debate taps into several hot-button topics. Many of the merit programs, for example, receive their funds from state lotteries, which are disproportionately funded by lower-income players. Critics also say the plans—which are largely, though not entirely, in southern states—can disproportionately hurt minorities.

"The money is being slowly taken away from the students who need it most," says Shannon McGhee, the associate director of financial planning at Mercer University, in Macon, Georgia. She says African-American and Hispanic students are most likely to benefit from need-based plans because "they have not necessarily had the same educational opportunities as their white peers".

Financially stressed students, of course, can get help from federal, need-based aid sources, but they too are being squeezed by rising college costs and demand. The federal Pell Grant program, which provided $36 billion in aid in the past fiscal year to low-income students, has expanded significantly in recent years, but the maximum grants covered on average only 64 per cent of tuition and fees at a public four-year-college this year, the lowest since the College Board began keeping track in 1981.

In all, US states provided about $11 billion in postsecondary student financial aid in the 2010-2011 academic year. States such as California, New York and Michigan allocate virtually 100 per cent of their scholarships to students where need is the primary component. But nationally, merit-based state funding—which was rare a few decades ago—now makes up 29 per cent of the scholarship dollars, highest on record, according to the nonpartisan National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs.

Leading the merit case has been Georgia, whose HOPE program—which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally—started in 1993 after the state amended its constitution to create a lottery and directed the revenue toward education. To be eligible, students had to graduate with a 3.0 average. In a speech announcing the plan, the then-governor Zell Miller said HOPE was designed to help middle-income families and "bright students who would otherwise find it difficult to go to college."

The program briefly considered family income when it began, but when the lottery did better than expected, that was quickly abolished—a politically popular move then, and now, in the state. "It's based upon your hard work and that is what we need to be encouraging," said Georgia state Senator Cecil Staton, a Republican and chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

College administrators say that while merit aid is helping the middle class, low-income students who miss the academic cut are either dropping out, slowing progress or taking on more debt. That was particularly noticeable this fall, they say, after lawmakers decided to save the financially strapped program by requiring full-tuition scholars to have a 3.7 average and a combined math and reading SAT score of at least 1,200, or a composite ACT score of 26. Those who graduated as a valedictorian or salutatorian can also qualify.

The full scholarships were renamed "Zell Miller" scholars. Traditional HOPE recipients, with GPAs between 3.0 and 3.7, or without the required test scores, are still eligible for aid, but smaller amounts adjusted annually based on lottery revenue.

The change made a difference to colleges catering to low-income populations. At Georgia State University, where four in 10 pupils come from families earning less than $30,000 a year, administrators were forced to drop dozens of students this fall for not paying tuition when their scholarship funds were cut. Many were able to come back, thanks to an appeal to donors, a school official said.

The Journal analysis of the change's impact looked at the home ZIP Codes of HOPE scholars for the past four years and the Miller scholars for the program's two years. Students from ZIP Codes with median incomes greater than $50,000 were nearly twice as likely to win HOPE scholarships as those from ZIP Codes with median incomes less than $50,000. But students from the better-off ZIP Codes were nearly three times as likely to win Zell Miller scholarships. The likelihood of winning a Zell Miller scholarship increased nearly uniformly with the income of the student's home ZIP Code.

One-fourth of Georgia's 27,626 Miller scholars to date live in just 15 of the state's roughly 700 ZIP Codes, all of which have median household incomes at least one-third higher than the state median of $49,347. Students in seven ZIP Codes—all in metropolitan Atlanta—with median incomes above $100,000 account for 10 per cent of Miller scholars, but just 3 per cent of Georgia's 15-to-19-year-olds, the Journal found.

State Senator Emanuel Jones, who is head of the Black Caucus, said lawmakers "discounted poor kids and kids of colour and it upsets me to no end".

Precise figures on the racial impact of merit funding in Georgia aren't available, since the state doesn't track that. Black enrolment at Georgia's public colleges fell 3.2 per cent  this fall, more than the overall 1.2 per cent enrolment decline. But experts say in any one year, several factors, from the economy to the job market, may explain that.

Outside of Georgia, at least one state—Tennessee—does report the racial makeup of merit-based scholars. It found that only 10 per cent of recipients were black, half the percentage of state residents ages 18 to 24 who are black. Some 84 per cent were white, compared with 72 per cent of college age whites in the state.

Some merit-backers have argued that these programs can reduce the so-called brain drain local economies suffer when too many talented graduates leave their home state. But a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at 15 states with such plans found those eligible for the aid were only one to three percentage points more likely than peers who weren't eligible to remain in the state after college graduation.

The merit aid is "lowering the cost of college for students, but not changing what they would have done," said Damon Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

Still, officials at some colleges in Georgia say they have seen a noticeable uptick in the student-body skills since merit programs started. Across Georgia's 35 public colleges and universities, HOPE recipients are much more likely to graduate than other students, according to state statistics. At the University of Georgia, the average GPA for entering freshmen was 3.26 last year, up from 2.7 in 1993, with a sizable increase in SAT scores as well.

"You can't directly connect HOPE but there is a lot of evidence that there is some sort of connection," said university spokesman Tom Jackson, a spokesman for the university, where the acceptance rate was 55 per cent this year, compared to 68 per cent when Georgia introduced HOPE.

The merit debate stirs other issues, including its source of funding. In April, the nonpartisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said counties with low and moderate average incomes spent the most on the state's lottery games but received proportionally fewer HOPE scholarships. Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor who has written a book on state lotteries, calls that a "stunning" example of redistribution.

"I am not moved by that particular argument," says Senator Staton, a Senate leader on education issues, referring to the points raised in the Georgia Budget and Policy report. "The government frankly does a lot of other things for them, if you're referring to low-income people."

Ultimately, the future shape of state scholarships will be decided in one state legislative house after another, as more programs face financial stress. In New Mexico, a state report in September said the merit-based lottery scholarship program will be broke by 2014. Similarly, Florida's own merit-based program, "Bright Futures," is being squeezed, says incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican. He has floated the idea of considering need, but concedes the idea might be "heresy" to his party and other merit backers.

In South Carolina, lawmakers have said it may be necessary to raise eligibility requirements or cap award amounts. State Senator John Courson, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee and leans toward capping award amounts, said the idea of adding means testing isn't on the table and wouldn't go over well in South Carolina. He points out the lottery was sold to voters on the merit-based notion.

"It goes to the basic thought that everyone should not necessarily go to college," he said, of the support for merit aid. "And that if you do it on a merit-based structure, then your best and brightest will stay in the state."

Neal McCluskey, education analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that neither form of aid is ultimately beneficial, saying both types drive colleges to raise tuition to capture the financial assistance. But states that do provide aid should most likely use a mix of merit and need-based criteria, he said.

The downside to merit aid only, he said, is that "often the people who can get it, those who have the high test scores, don't need it." But giving students need-based aid, without regard to whether they have a demonstrated aptitude for college-level work, amounts to "setting them up for failure," he said. "It ends up wasting their time and money as well as taxpayers' money."


My Plan for Eliminating School Shootings

Mike Adams

As a candidate for president of the United States, it is incumbent on me to make a statement regarding the Sandy Hook massacre and to explain how my policies would help prevent other such massacres should I become president. As I discuss this sensitive topic, it is also incumbent on me to sound more rational and articulate than the incumbent. That will not be difficult.

As president, I plan to attack the issue in two ways. First, I will use the bully pulpit to influence voters and state lawmakers. Second, I will take direct action to influence the federal judiciary.

Plan A is to try to persuade states to replace teacher certification with CCW permit certification. We all know that the teacher certification process is a racket. It just means taking more classes from "education" professors who lack substantive knowledge in any specific area of expertise. So instead of having a college degree and teacher certification, I believe that states should make teachers have a college degree and a concealed weapons permit. This will pay off in three distinct ways if states also change their laws to allow those with permits to carry on campus.

1. Reduced violence. First and foremost, concealed weapons permits decrease violence. The rationale is simple if we consider that crime only happens when a motivated offender encounters a suitable target in the absence of a capable guardian. Everyone knows that the gunless are suitable targets for violent crime. This is particularly the case when there is no one around to guard them.

So my plan will turn these teachers into capable guardians. I really think everyone will benefit when teachers stop taking "social justice in the classroom" and other silly education classes in order to be certified to teach our kids. Simply put, there can be no social justice when children are being slaughtered in the schoolhouse.

2. More male teachers (and fewer metrosexual students). Some have suggested that most female teachers would not feel comfortable around guns. So they might be deterred from teaching if they have to go through weapons certification, which requires firing a weapon. This is not a problem as far as I am concerned.

For far too long, men have been grossly underrepresented in the teaching profession. This has had a profound impact on young men. From kindergarten to high school graduation, they are too often in the position of trying to please a female authority figure. This lack of balance affects their relationships with both women and men. A constant concern with pleasing women eventually turns a man into a woman. That is why we have so many young adult metrosexual males talking about their feelings.

Simply put, having gun toting male role models in the classroom will be good. Having your student taught by Ted Nugent just might keep him from becoming Ted Baxter.

3. Fewer liberals in the teaching profession. For years, conservatives have been looking for a cure to the problem of liberal indoctrination in our schools. You are reading the solution right now. Clearly, most liberals would rather be unemployed than to have to touch a weapon. The weapon is a reminder of the fallen of nature of man. Liberals know that if man is not good, then liberalism is wrong.

Liberals who care enough about liberalism to teach it for a living would rather be dead than wrong. Some might say I'm dead wrong about this one. Actually, I am alive and I am right. And you know it. That's why I'm going to be your next president.

Plan B: Speaking of the presidency, I will be tasked with choosing judges when I become president. When I do, there will be a Roe v. Wade litmus test. This will indirectly affect violence toward children in two distinct but interrelated ways.

1. Creating a culture of life in the long term. Liberal politicians like to pretend that they care about dead children - especially after a school shooting occurs. The very day some lunatic kills twenty children in a school shooting, liberals are right there on television lobbying for stricter gun control measures. The very next day they are lobbying to preserve abortion rights - even though the procedure kills 3000 innocent children daily. We seldom give much thought to the hypocrisy - even though the unborn child dismembered with a scalpel is every bit as human as the kindergartner shot with a gun.

We did not get this calloused overnight. And our hearts will not be softened overnight. It will take years of decisions by judges who understand that no innocent child deserves to die - not even if his dad was a rapist. My judicial appointments will all be sworn to uphold life. There will be no diversity or tolerance on this issue during my administration.

2. The Roe litmus test immediately filters out anti second amendment judges. Have you ever noticed that people who think professional wrestling is real are the same people who think the moon landing was fake? Similarly, judges who believe the word "abortion" is written in the constitution are the same ones who cannot see the word "arms" written in the constitution. By filtering out pro abortion judges, we will also filter out pro gun control judges.

Forgive me if my response to the recent school shootings is terse or if my approach to reducing them seems simple. In some ways, the issue is very simple. But turning the tide on the problem of school shootings will require patience and resolve. With most politicians, that’s where things get complicated. But I plan to keep shooting straight with you, no matter how unpopular my policies may be.

In a nutshell, I believe that effective gun control means shooting with both hands on your weapon. It doesn't mean tying the hands of capable guardians and turning innocent children into suitable targets for motivated offenders.


Britain's General studies exams 'should be axed', MP warns

 The number of teenagers taking A-levels in general studies has more than halved in a decade amid fresh claims that the qualification has “had its day”.

 Figures show that the number of entries for the course – first introduced in the late 50s – plummeted to just 35,500 this year.

 It marked a record low for the qualification which had been the most popular A-level subject in Britain just 12 years ago.

 General studies is counted in official league tables and can still be used to dictate entry to some university courses.

 But critics claim that it lacks rigour, with some pupils sitting exams after receiving no formal tuition or with little more than regular general knowledge quizzes as practice.

 Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP for Kingswood and member of the Commons Education Select Committee, called for general studies to be scrapped altogether.

 “General studies is a qualification which has had its day," he said. "It should no longer be used to prop up performance in schools, especially when we live in a world where universities and employers are demanding rigorous qualifications that both have meaning and require standards of excellence.

 "If we are to ensure that pupils’ valuable time isn’t wasted, we must ensure that they are focusing on the subjects that deliver a clear pathway to higher education and the workplace. General studies has no place in this new world, where the type of qualifications you take matters more than ever.”

 General studies was introduced in 1959 amid fears that A-levels lacked breadth.

 The course was intended to give pupils a grounding in a range of disciplines such as the arts, humanities and social and physical sciences to supplement their three specialist A-level subjects.

 Current course specifications cover a range of issues such as world religions, different approaches to the media, British politics and the monarchy, the nature of scientific investigation, space and matter and the changing role of the family.

 But figures reveal the subject has been marked by a serious decline in recent years.

 Data from exam boards shows that 89,805 pupils took A-level exams in general studies in 2000 – making it more popular than English and maths.

 But numbers more than halved to 40,984 in 2011 and dropped by a further 13 per cent this year to 35,558.

 Separate data published after a Parliamentary question by Mr Skidmore suggests it is still being used to "prop up" league tables.

 It emerged that 33,154 students gained straight As in all subjects last year but the numbers dropped to 32,114 after general studies entries were stripped out.

 Despite concerns over the subject, some top Russell Group universities still use it as part of their admissions process.

 Sheffield University said general studies was considered for entry to some undergraduate courses “where taken alongside considered general two A-levels”, while Liverpool said it was “equivalent to other A-level subjects, however some departments will not accept it”.

 Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: “General studies was a solution to a perceived problem that we didn’t have a great deal of breadth in the A-level system.

 “But it quickly became seen simply as a way for bright students to gain an extra A-level with very little effort and an opportunity for less able kids to collect a soft qualification.”

 Research published by Prof Smithers in the 90s found some schools entered pupils for general studies exams with no formal tuition, while some played board games such as Trivial Pursuit in preparation.

 A spokeswoman for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, Britain's biggest exam board, said entries were declining because of competition from other subjects and qualifications, adding: "General studies teaches and assesses critical thinking, argument, debate and research – all the skills that universities ask for.

 "We believe that the vast majority of universities include it in offers and many, including the Russell Group, use it as a differentiator between applicants with otherwise similar grade profiles."


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