Op-ed: Merit-based aid helps the privileged, need-based aid helps all

Ian Mandt is the executive treasurer for the Student Government Association. 

In order to pay for his daughter’s semester at Emerson Los Angeles, Chloe Warfford’s father used his retirement funds.

“He wanted the opportunity so badly for me,” Warfford said.

The average student in Massachusetts holds $32,065 in debt, and the state is the seventh highest in the nation for average debt per student, according to The Institute for College Access and Success’ 2018 report. Across the state, low-income families disproportionately carry the burden of college debt.

The story is no different at Emerson. After the Student Government Association released the Financial Accountability Initiative last semester, students had the opportunity to share their experiences through an online survey.

Senior Cathleen Cusachs, a former editor at the Beacon, said, “I’m graduating $100,000 in debt. I’m a journalism major. When will I ever make enough to pay that back?”

Colleges, especially ones that profess values of social justice and equity, have an obligation to pursue need-based aid. Until equal access is granted to all students, rewarding achievement counters the college’s mission and instead perpetuates problematic systems.

The aid provided by colleges falls into two major categories一merit-based and need-based. Merit-based aid is awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional academic and leadership ability, while need-based aid is awarded based on students’ financial needs.

Need-based aid ideally serves as an equalizer. Adequate need-based programs would create an environment where any student, regardless of background or economic standing, could receive an education.

This is not to say that merit-based aid is not important. Merit aid is what allows Emerson to attract highly talented students from wealthy backgrounds. These students keep the college afloat by paying nearly full tuition and donating post-graduation, an important source of revenue. These students worked incredibly hard in their pre-college years to earn their merit-based aid. In most cases, merit-aid is earned at entry to an institution and can’t be earned as a returning student except through individual applications.

However, when colleges offer merit-aid, it is with the intention of attracting higher income students who can pay full price according to The New America Foundation. Not only are lower-income students systematically disadvantaged, they are also routinely overlooked in the distribution of merit-based aid.

In a scenario where a college has $20,000 in aid to award, that school could attract four wealthy high-achieving students through individual $5,000 merit-based scholarships. In the alternate scenario, that same school could attract one underprivileged student with a single $20,000 need-based scholarship.

Additionally, the vast majority of students simply don’t have the chance to earn merit-based aid. Students who come from lower and even middle-income families often spend their free time working for pay rather than studying or participating in extracurriculars that could earn them merit-based aid, while also attending schools that offer fewer advanced courses, limited resources, and weaker academic experiences.

Need-based aid creates spaces for students who could not attend college without it. Merit-based aid, while essential to the success of Emerson, perpetuates inequality.

Many Ivy League and leading liberal arts institutions around the nation are making the transition to dedicate all financial aid resources to need-based aid.

For example, Franklin & Marshall College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, recently made the switch to only need-based aid. Since making the switch, “24 percent of domestic students in the Class of 2021 are eligible for federal Pell grants, 20 percent are the first in their families to go to college, 26 percent are domestic students of color, and 14 percent come from countries outside the United States,” according to Franklin & Marshall’s website. Additionally, student debt after graduation has sunk 20 percent since 2012.

With a smaller endowment and higher student population, Emerson most likely cannot make this transition, nor should they. However, the benefits of need-based aid are clear.

At Emerson, 76 percent of students receive some portion of the $40 million in aid awarded each year. However, students continue to share stories like Warfford’s and Cusachs’. Those stories only scratch the surface of the financial stress and strain students feel while at Emerson and after leaving.

Just as students have spent decades fighting for racial equity on campus, students have also fought for financial access, including the overwhelming support for Student Access in Emerson’s recent Voice Your Choice student poll. Nonetheless, tuition has increased steadily for more than a decade.

A school for future creators, artistic leaders, and activists should be open to all. This seems the only way to challenge the norms and institutions that hold back and take advantage of marginalized communities.

That is why, as SGA executive treasurer, I have worked closely with Institutional Advancement and Financial Aid for nearly six months to re-establish the SGA scholarship as a need-based, topper-style scholarship. The newly reformed scholarship will allow students to receive that last bit of aid necessary to stay at Emerson. For some, the extra $2,000 of need-based aid means the difference between staying and leaving. As an institution, that is where need is highest.

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