Ending Aid for the 'Average'

LSU ends a major scholarship program for alumni children -- deciding it can no longer afford to favor a group based on birth instead of need or ability.

November 18, 2011

Every few years, a book or report focuses attention on the preferences colleges provide to alumni children, or to the offspring of potential donors, in admissions or financial aid. Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission generated considerable buzz in 2006. Last year, a collection of essays -- Affirmative Action for the Rich -- addressed some similar themes. But despite periodic attention to the issue, most experts on admissions agree that colleges typically go right on offering these preferences. Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the volume that came out last year, said he couldn't think of a college that had acted on the book's arguments.

But this year, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge has ended an extremely generous financial aid program for alumni children, saying that in tight budget times it is inappropriate to give alumni children an edge in earning scholarships that may be needed by others based on financial circumstances or earned based on academic merit. Officials can't cite an exact figure for savings because some alumni children continue to qualify for aid based either on need or academic merit (and would have in the past, even if they hadn't had the legacy scholarship as a sure thing).

But they estimate that the savings -- which are being used for other financial aid programs -- are in the millions of dollars and that a few hundred alumni children may not have enrolled at LSU this year as a result.

"It was a good program, but it was just too expensive and there wasn't any connection to merit," said Kurt Keppler, vice chancellor for student life and enrollment services. "We didn't want to cut programs that would affect the academic core."

The scholarship covered three-fourths of the gap between in-state and out-of-state tuition for children of alumni of any campus in the LSU system. While the value of the scholarship varied from year to year, depending on the tuition levels, it was in the range of $10,000 a year and was renewable through an undergraduate degree.

To be eligible for the scholarship, a student had only to be admissible to the university -- meaning a high school grade-point average of 3.0 and an ACT score of 22. In contrast, most of the merit scholarships the university awards (many of them worth less than the legacy offspring scholarship) require an ACT score of at least 28.

While Keppler said that he welcomes alumni children, he said it troubled him to have such generous grants available to students who hadn't gotten over a particularly high bar. "There were a lot of these students who were, for lack of a better term, 'average' in terms of our pool of applicants," he said.

Out-of-state enrollment is down this year by about 250 and Keppler said that he thinks (but can't prove) that the loss of the alumni scholarships played a role.

He said that LSU has strong alumni clusters in major cities such as Houston, Dallas and Atlanta -- and that many of these alumni want to send their children to LSU, but not to pay out-of-state rates. He said that he has heard from many people who are "disappointed," but said that there has been no major protest of the change. Given that many of these are people who can afford the tuition, he also said some are probably still paying for their children to attend.

Alumni blogs and message boards have featured some complaining, with people noting that the Louisiana economy left them few opportunities to stay in-state for their careers, and that they wanted to maintain their ties to LSU. One alumnus wrote that "unless something changes, I guess my future kids will not be attending LSU." Another wrote: "It's a big deal for a lot of ex-pats in Texas who planned on sending their kids to LSU without paying 14k in tuition every year."

Kahlenberg, editor of last year's volume on alumni preferences, said that he thinks the next discussion of legacy preferences may be prompted by any change that comes from the U.S. Supreme Court on affirmative action. If the Supreme Court bars or severely limits the consideration of race by colleges, he said that may motivate colleges -- as Texas A&M University did after a court ruling barred it from considering race -- to end preferences for alumni children.


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