• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Work on Your Jump Shot

A misbegotten blip of an idea in Utah.

November 26, 2019

Apparently, the state of Utah is phasing out academic merit scholarships, while leaving athletic scholarships intact. The ostensible idea is to redirect resources toward need-based aid.

Accordingly, my advice to middle-class kids in Utah is to work on your jump shot.

Utah’s move is a terrible idea, and so many better ideas are available.

Starting with the most basic, as any working parent can tell you, the idea that “need-based aid” actually meets full need is ridiculous. It simply does not. The Utah program that will benefit from the redirected funding caps family income at $50,000; someone whose family makes $55,000 may be surprised to hear themselves described as too wealthy to help, but there it is. And in American political culture, the usual response to programs like that among people right over the cutoff is resentment toward those who got it, which tends to lead to desiccation of the programs over time.

If they want to do away with academic merit scholarships altogether in favor of something more egalitarian, I could think of a few ways to do it. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

One would be to direct the money as operating aid to public colleges in the state, conditioned on them freezing tuition for a while and then agreeing to low caps on increases afterward. That would have the happy side effect (for the state) of reducing the cost of state financial aid programs and would lower prices across the board.

And/or they could create an emergency fund for students who have abrupt eruptions of need beyond what their financial aid would cover. These could be used for emergency housing, or car repairs, or medical bills. We know that “life happening” is a major cause of student attrition, which, in turn, drives default rates. Directing money specifically at those events may help.

And/or they could divert the money into improved advising and counseling for all students, ensuring that more of them are able to finish their degrees. We know that students who finish are much better off economically than students who drop out; increasing the number who finish is likely to do tremendous good in the long run. To the extent that dropout rates are driven by economic factors, this would be de facto progressive.

And/or they could define “merit” differently. A few years ago I proposed a free sophomore year conditioned on the successful completion of the freshman year. The idea was to incentivize the behavior we want to see, to make paying for college easier as students go along and to create political sustainability by converting a “handout” into an “earned benefit.” Marion Technical College (Ohio) has actually tried this, with encouraging early results. The beauty of this model is that it locates “merit” in performance at college, rather than extrapolating from high school. Done well, it could be much more egalitarian than anything relying on high school records, SAT scores or placement exams.

Any of those, or any combination of those, would be better than what Utah is planning to do.

Utah’s move gets the basics wrong. It turns an earned benefit into a handout, thereby making it politically vulnerable. It hides the funding in another program, making its gradual (or rapid, for that matter) absorption both invisible and inevitable. It cuts off the income level far too low, thereby ensuring plenty of very annoyed middle-class parents. And it does nothing to address either the cost spiral or completion rates.

Meanwhile, though, sports remain sacrosanct.

I hope this represents a misbegotten blip, rather than an incipient trend. (The Misbegotten Blips sounds like a great, lost 1980s indie band.) It’s off-base symbolically, substantively and politically. On the bright side, though, Utah might become a basketball powerhouse in a few years.


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