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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Carleton should not sponsor the National Merit Scholarship program

< the past few weeks, Ryan McLaughlin and I have published articles exposing the College’s hypocritical budgetary priorities. We have shown that the College has failed to limit operating costs and allocate sufficient funds to financial aid. In this article, I examine a serious inequity in the College’s financial aid process. I argue that Carleton’s sponsorship of the National Merit Scholarship Program (NMSP) is both outmoded and unfair.

Carleton is one of the few top liberal arts colleges that still sponsor NMSP. Among the top ten liberal arts colleges in the U.S. (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report), only three sponsor NMSP. Furthermore, all schools ranked in the top five have adopted explicit policies against NMSP. Thus, the notion that NMSP is beneficial to Carleton’s academic competitiveness is highly dubious. If anything, Carleton’s continued support of NMSP is a sign of mediocrity, rather than prestige.

Conversely, the reasons for abandoning NMSP are well substantiated. In spite of its name, NMSP is one the least meritocratic scholarships available. National Merit Semifinalists are chosen almost exclusively on the basis of students’ PSAT scores. Extensive research has shown that scores on the SAT (let alone the PSAT) are extremely poor predictors of student achievement during college. Scores on standardized tests tend to be more correlated with socio-economic status than actual performance. As a result, NMSP rewards the privileged, rather than the deserving.

In fact, the test is only accessible to those privileged students whose parents are willing to finance the testing. Those students who are too poor to take the test are ineligible for NMSP. Even most middle income students who can afford to pay the testing fees are disadvantaged, since they are unable to hire professional coaches who can train them to master standardized testing strategies. Even worse, minorities and low-income students are disadvantaged on the PSAT due to the stereotype threat, along with other ethnocentric biases. Of course, as a so-called merit-based scholarship, NMSP does not take into account these income disparities.

The most reprehensible aspect of the College’s participation in NMSP, though, is that it diverts from need-based aid. President Robert Oden asserts: “Unlike so many American colleges and universities who reward test scores with scholarship awards, we at Carleton have long devoted the great majority of our financial aid to meeting financial need…” (President’s Report to Alumni at Reunion 2007, emphases added). Unfortunately, Carleton’s sponsorship of NMSP directly invalidates Oden’s claim.

According to Carleton’s Academic Catalog, the College sponsors about 320 NMSP recipients every year. At $2,000 per student, the College’s participation in NMSP costs a total of $640,000 per year. This budgetary obligation is not trivial. For $640,000, the College could more than triple the size of the Carleton Access Scholarship Program. For $640,000, the College could hire at least six new professors. For $640,000, the College could have avoided all budgetary cuts during fiscal year 2009 and would have had $140,000 to spare. In lieu of funding these worthwhile alternatives, the College chooses to sponsor NMSP—a scholarship that largely transfers wealth to the most affluent students.

The truth is that NMSP does not deserve $640,000 of support from Carleton. NMSP is a discriminatory and wasteful initiative, which most elite institutions have long abandoned. Therefore, the College should eliminate all of its NMSP sponsorships and reallocate the saved monies to those who demonstrate genuine financial need. Once and for all, Carleton should award 100 percent of its financial aid on the basis of need, rather than test scores.

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