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With the rising costs of college education, students increasingly seek scholarship opportunities based on a myriad of criteria. Yet remarkably little attention focuses on public perceptions of what should be qualifications for college-granted scholarships. Analyzing this may not only help us understand what the public deems as fair or transparent, but also can give insight into common misconceptions. Our survey data show a wide variation in support and suggest areas where colleges may benefit from clear messaging about scholarships.

In 2020, 58 percent of families used scholarships of some form to pay for college. While private organizations can determine their own criteria for roughly 1.7 million scholarships provided, public colleges and universities tend to focus on a few factors to entice students to choose their colleges over others. These include scholarships linked to merit, financial need, athletic ability and race and ethnicity.

Yet confusion persists around many aspects of college scholarships, from misconceptions about the frequency of “full rides,” who is most likely to receive awards and the difficulty in determining eligibility. For example, nonwhite students historically received disproportionately fewer scholarships than their white counterparts did, although this often is attributed to private scholarships with narrow criteria that received few nonwhite applicants. There is also a common misconception that many Black students get a “free ride,” despite Black students historically taking on more college debt than white students. Pell Grants, which usually go to students from households making less than $40,000 annually, have not kept up with the rising costs of education. Fewer than 2 percent of high school athletes planning to attend college receive athletic scholarships. Educational assistance to veterans under the GI Bill has not kept up with the rising costs of a college education. For-profit colleges often target veterans, and most scholarships for military dependents are from private organizations.

Most need-based grants and loans derive from the federal government, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting that, among full-time, full-year undergraduates, the majority across all races and ethnicities reported receiving aid, from 87 percent and 88 percent for American Indian/Alaska Native students and Black students respectively, down to 74 percent for white students and 66 percent for Asian students. Colleges and universities themselves often establish additional scholarships beyond federal grants and loans based on the same criteria.

Need-based grants, which often overlap with ones focused on race and ethnicity, have two primary goals: promoting educational diversity and remedying previous discrimination. Current U.S. law permits public colleges and universities to consider race and ethnicity in admissions and financial aid when doing so furthers a compelling state interest. Whether colleges should promote such diversity through scholarships remains controversial, with critics claiming it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the latter of which prohibits any government agency that receives federal funds from engaging in discrimination.

It is challenging to find credible data reflecting public opinion on justifiable scholarship criteria, however, a 2021 Bipartisan Policy Center survey finds that majorities support the promotion of racial equity in higher education. Many surveys focus on affordability in general. A 2020 Gallup survey found that three-quarters of U.S. adults did not think that college was affordable.

We assumed that we would find diverging views based on not only partisanship but also race, similar to findings on support for free college tuition and college debt forgiveness. We also expect to find that people’s views diverge based on whether they have a college education or not. People who don’t have a college education may not value it as much as people with a college education, and people who have never gone to college may have misconceptions about the costs of college and the difficulties people face in finding funding for college.

To understand public preferences on scholarships, we conducted a web survey via Qualtrics of 1,728 American respondents between June 29 and July 11 with quota sampling for age, gender and geographic region. We asked if the following factors should influence a college’s decision to grant scholarships: academic merit (e.g., grades, test scores), financial need, geographic representation, race and ethnic representation, volunteer experience, being a first-generation college student, athletic ability, and military service or being a child of a veteran. Admittedly, these categories are not mutually exclusive.

Several interesting trends became clear from our survey results. First, while the most popular scholarships were academic merit and financial need, support ranges considerably across groups. We see little difference between Democrats and Republicans on academic merit, but a 10.61-percentage-point difference in using financial need as criteria, with Democrats being more supportive. Among race and ethnic groups, white respondents were the most likely to support academic merit scholarships. Respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree were more likely to support all scholarship categories compared to respondents without any college experience, with an 18.41 percent difference in support for financial need scholarships.

Secondly, we find mixed support for geographic and race and ethnic representation, with Black and Asian respondents being the only groups where a majority supported both. Third, volunteer experience, a common focal point in private scholarships and college acceptance decisions at selective colleges, received majority support from all respondent demographic groups except for Republicans and those without a college education. We also find similar patterns in support for first-generation students. Fourth, we find majorities across all groups supportive of military service or dependency as a criterion.

Bar chart of answers to the question "Do you think the following factors should influence a college's decision to grant scholarships?"

Regression analysis provides additional insight. Controlling for demographic factors and party identification, we find the two most consistent predictors of support were education and age. Education positively corresponded with support in all but merit, while age positively corresponded with merit, need and military service and negatively corresponded with all of the rest, all significant at p <0.05 or stronger. Black and Democratic respondents were also more likely than other racial/ethnic groups or party affiliations to support most of the options, although surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans were more likely than Independents to support athletic ability as a criterion.

Colleges have valid reasons to avoid a rigid one-size-fits-all approach to scholarships. While the results suggest that there is consensus on some types of scholarships, on areas of disagreement, people appear to prioritize criteria that help people like themselves. Admittedly, these categories are not mutually exclusive, and addressing certain criteria such as financial need can indirectly impact categories such as first-generation status and race.

The popularity of academic merit scholarships creates a conundrum for state governments and publicly funded universities. Studies examining the Georgia HOPE scholarship and the Kentucky KEES scholarship, two academic merit scholarships for in-state students run by state governments, found that they helped students from wealthier families more than students who came from backgrounds of greater financial need. These same studies also found that students from wealthier backgrounds were more likely to retain these scholarships. Non-merit-based scholarships often have their own similar pitfalls, for example, with race-focused scholarships often aiding families already better equipped to afford college tuition.

States and public universities have a responsibility to make sure that students who come from a background of financial need have access to scholarships as well as an infrastructure within the university to help them maintain the scholarship and successfully graduate. Thus, a diverse scholarship offering that balances public transparency and does not create unintended consequences as described is the best way to support students.

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