Who’s Getting Financial Aid?

A revealing new study on financial aid at public research universities could cast a nasty shadow over school administrations nationwide. The study, “Opportunity Adrift,” from the non-profit research group, The Education Trust, finds that public universities, rather than award financial aid primarily to poor and/or minority students who could not otherwise afford college, actually give inordinate amounts of aid to students from wealthier families who could afford school anyway (and could likely afford to attend more expensive private schools).

Public universities, the study finds, have shifted their aid priorities from need-based aid to so-called “merit-based” financial aid. “So-called” because “merit” is defined in very narrow terms like performance on standardized tests and participation in advanced placement programs. That is, “merit” means attending a well-resourced school and being able to afford expensive SAT prep courses or tutors. Even then, though, merit-based aid is disproportionately denied to equally qualified poor and black or Hispanic students.  According to the study, the shift of priorities has taken place, to a large extent, at the level of individual school administrations, which decide what criteria are used for allocating financial aid.

The study, released this month, is not the first one to find this phenomenon. A 2006 study from The Education Trust, “Engines of Inequality,” observed the same trend from the early ‘90s through  2003. Indeed, UCI’s own Strategic Plan (available online at http://www.strategicplan.uci.edu) says as much in the subsection on “Diversity, Access and Financial Aid.” The Plan states clearly that merit-based aid programs mean “even greater numbers of California’s students may confront restricted access to the University of California.”

With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves a few questions. First, what exactly is going on here? Second, does it make sense? Finally, what do we do about it?

The study finds that public research universities (such as UCI) have changed their financial aid priorities in order to attract much wealthier (and whiter) students who will reflect better on the school. As it turns out, black, Hispanic or poor students who may have to work harder to excel in college reflects badly upon a school. Those students, then, are consigned to attend community colleges that specialize in trade and vocational training.

The message, of course, is that if you’re poor and want to study literature, you’re probably better off learning something “practical,” like welding. Or, if you’re persistent, you can go to school and acquire a deep debt. The study finds that “the typical low-income student [is] saddled with an unimaginable burden: an ‘unmet’ need roughly equivalent to 70 percent of his or her family’s annual income.” I can personally attest to this; my yearly loans equal about three-quarters of my disabled parent’s annual income.

This situation, which is consistent across the country, seems untenable and insane at first blush. These funding preferences, according to The Washington Post, routinely award as much in financial aid to students whose parents make more than $80,000 a year as to those whose parents make less than $54,000 a year. How does this make sense?

It certainly doesn’t make sense ethically, but school administrators aren’t hired to be ethical. It also flies in the face of common sense. Why give “financial aid” to folks who don’t need any financial aid? It doesn’t even make good economic sense, both because the school could use the money paid by wealthy students and because economic and racial diversity actually do make good economic sense.

The only interest that seems to be met by choosing to finance the educations of wealthy students is to reify privilege. That is, to keep as much political, economic and cultural power in as few hands as possible – to build a high wall around the upper middle class, post armed sentries on the ramparts, hobble poor, minority students and hope nobody makes it over.

So, when it comes to financial aid — money that the schools decide for themselves how to allocate — let’s call a spade a spade. Let us say directly that our administration acts, knowingly and deliberately, without help from Oakland or Sacramento, to keep poor and black or Hispanic students out of the university, and they must be held accountable.

James Bliss is a fourth-year political science, women’s studies & African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu.