Reward Hard Work, Not Accumulated Wealth
If you watched the State of the Union address on January 20, you must have shook your head in disbelief when President Bush said that the economy was on the mend. In too many ways, he thumbed his nose at the 9 million unemployed Americans who have yet to benefit from the mending that he bragged of. Even as he spoke of a mended economy, he also spoke of the need to contain domestic spending, while ignoring the role his own profligate spending has had in ballooning our deficit past the $450 billion mark. I could not listen to President Bush without thinking of the many ways our nation is pulling apart instead of growing closer together. Democrat candidate John Edwards’ stump speech on “two Americas” contrasts with President Bush’s myopic assertion that the economy is doing well, high unemployment notwithstanding.
Edwards is not the only Democrat who has spoken of the great divide in our nation. On the Saturday after the State of the Union Address, South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle responded to President Bush’s address by lifting up the “good hardworking people” in his home state. He spoke of the need for a strong economy with good jobs and said, “America can’t afford to keep rewarding the accumulation of wealth over the dignity of work.”
Daschle ought to have a conversation with the financial aid directors of some of our nation’s top universities. There, doors are being slammed in the faces of poor students while financial aid packages are being showered on those who hardly need the extra help. According to a 2003 report by the Lumina Foundation, our nation’s lowest-income students are losing ground in the grants game, while the amount of money given to wealthy students has grown faster than the money given to other students.
Colleges have all kinds of rationales for rewarding the wealthy. Some have put more money into “merit” scholarships than to those that are need-based; rewarding the stellar student rather than the one who needs the most help. Other schools tell students they’ll match the financial aid packages others give them, triggering a bidding war for those who could afford to apply to multiple schools, leaving others in the dust. Despite research that suggests that filling a class with early decision students disadvantages other students, some schools not only give away slots too early, but match admissions offers with financial aid dollars.
Once upon a time, the purpose of financial aid was to provide educational access to the needy. Now, when the ticket price at some colleges is as much as a third of a middle-class family’s income, financial aid is frequently used to provide affordable education for those in the middle, not access to those at the bottom. In the last decade, then, scholarship assistance for needy students grew by about 60 percent, while the amount of merit-based scholarships tripled.
It is hard to quibble about merit awards, but if they come at the expense of need-based awards, there is a problem. In addition, according to Lumina, more than a million students sit out college each year because of money. Who wants to bet that these students are Black, Brown, and poor? The children of the wealthy, no matter what their grades, usually find a college to attend.
The current policy toward financial aid seems similar to the Bush policy toward tax cuts. Those who need it least, get the most, while those with the greatest need are often ignored. Increasingly, there is a debate about whether it even makes any sense to offer need-based scholarships, especially at elite institutions. Additionally, with so many states facing financial problems, tuition costs are rising and those who are least able to pay are simply being shut out of higher education. Moreover, the one source of funds that poor students have been able to count on, Pell Grants, cover a shrinking amount of the annual college ticket price. They covered 70 percent of college costs in 1980, but just 40 percent of those costs today.
It is ironic that, 50 years after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, there are still issues of educational access for African American students. Now, no college discriminates on the basis of race or gender, but discrimination by ability to pay hits poor students, a disproportionate number of whom are African American, most heavily. Competition for scarce funds has become so intense that issues of economic justice and educational access have a relatively low priority.
The irony in the current situation is that civil rights activists focused on educational access in the last era because they thought that if African Americans had equal education then we’d be able to compete economically, to find jobs and business opportunities as rewarding as those others had. The lawsuits that established access to education did not make provisions for educational funding, either at the K-12 level or with higher education. And, even when education is equal, economic indicators suggest that race still matters in the economic competition.
Too many college financial aid policies maintain gaps instead of narrowing them. Continuing research shows that restricted access to higher education remains an issue. Too many would reward wealth, not work, in offering a helping hand for college. And too few find this outrageous enough to protest these policies.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com