February 21, 2011

“Wasted?”  That’s the header from an e-mail I received from a recent alumnus, questioning my statement in the Dan DeVise Washington Post article that “every dollar that we spend on merit aid as opposed to need-based aid is wasted.”

Here’s what my alumnus friend writes:  “As someone who received merit aid, and who has donated into those programs as an alum, I was a little sad to hear you think that money was wasted. I would have never qualified for [need-based] aid but as my parents were public school teachers the 30k per year would have been out of our reach. I value my time at Earlham and merit awards made it possible.”

Here’s what I wrote back to him:  “I want adequate financial aid for all young people to be able to attend college.  ALL.  And as a nation, we’re currently not living up to that goal — not beginning to.  The way to equitably distribute that aid is on the basis of need, measured in a fair way according to family ability to pay.  The current ways of assessing need are inadequate because there isn’t enough need-based aid to begin to meet the need.  So families — especially middle class families — are given too little need-based aid, and (perhaps like yours) come to look at the merit aid they receive as a godsend.  But note that it’s aid they should have gotten in the first place — to meet need.  The merit aid I hate is non-need-based aid given to wealthy families who can afford to pay the full price of a valuable college education.  Our current system (our = U.S.) is rotten to the core.  Earlham gives some merit aid to keep ourselves from being swamped in an increasingly corrupt aid marketplace.  We use it defensively, and most of it goes to meet real need — only we label it as “merit aid” because that has become currency of the realm.  I am especially glad you chose to come to Earlham, and that we helped to make that possible.  And thanks for making it possible for others.”

And I referred him to this piece I wrote in 2008 about “Earlham’s Commitment to Financial Aid. “


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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