University should focus on need-based aid over deceptive merit scholarships

Opening an acceptance letter feels great. The feeling is even better when admittance is accompanied by a merit scholarship. Merit scholarships are meant to celebrate accomplishments and reward stellar work in high school – but it appears like they are meant to do something else at GW.

That feeling of being celebrated and given a discount is how the University uses merit scholarships to deceive students. These seemingly prestigious scholarships are used to make an almost $70,000 tuition appear a bit less hefty. While a student may think they’re special for receiving a merit scholarship, the truth is that nearly half of undergraduates receive the Presidential Academic Scholarship – an award reserved for the “most competitive” applicants – according to a Wall Street Journal story that used GW as its primary example to discuss this problem.

Overusing merit scholarships means the University has less money to potentially spend on granting need-based financial aid.

This practice isn’t unique to GW. It’s part of a growing trend as higher education becomes more competitive and expensive. As schools look to ascend college rankings, they try to compete with other elite institutions to persuade students to attend their school. Colleges use merit scholarships to make students feel wanted and parents feel like they are getting a good deal on rising tuition costs. Overusing merit scholarships means the University has less money to potentially spend on granting need-based financial aid. If GW wants to fight its reputation and prevent prospective students from falling for a discounted sticker price, the University must prioritize need-based aid over merit-based scholarships used to lure students.

GW’s financial aid policy made headlines in 2013 when the University admitted it had been using an applicant’s financial need as a factor in their acceptance. At the time, officials said up to 10 percent of applicants met GW’s admissions standards but were not among the top applicants, so they could be shifted from accepted to waitlisted if they needed more financial support.

GW has been known for a rich reputation for years and is consistently one of the least economically diverse universities in the country.

When more financial aid money is spent on merit scholarships, less is available for students who have demonstrated need. While GW does not report the percentage of demonstrated need they meet, the University says they do not fund 100 percent of need, which leaves students scrambling to find ways to cover the rest of their bill.

The University wants to compete for the best students, but the brightest students might be those that can’t afford GW’s high price tag. By outspending top schools in need-based aid, the University can find talented students and fight its rich-kid reputation at the same time.

Schools like the University of North Carolina manage to spend less than 10 percent of their financial aid pot on merit scholarships compared to GW’s 26 percent, and Northwestern University gives less than 5 percent of freshmen with no financial need a merit scholarship. These schools both offer lower rates of merit scholarships and meet 100 percent of students’ demonstrated need.

Deceiving students by widely giving merit scholarships, because students would rather attend a more expensive school with a discount than a school that sits at the discounted price, must stop.

By increasing need-based aid over merit scholarships, the University can close an embarrassing wealth gap and support students who actually need the money.

Ultimately, merit-based aid won’t decide whether or not a student can afford to attend college. Need-based aid can make or break a potential student’s ability to afford to go to college. But GW and other universities around the country have added a practice of giving merit scholarships to entice students to enroll, rather than meeting the full financial need of students.

Games like this to attract students should be left in the past, and GW should instead focus on meeting students’ financial need. By increasing need-based aid over merit scholarships, the University can close an embarrassing wealth gap and support students who actually need the money. It’s time for the University to abandon the facade of merit scholarships and instead focus on helping lower-income students at GW by meeting 100 percent of their financial need, instead of playing games with scholarships for unwarranted merit.

Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a freshman majoring in political science, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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