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Merit Aid Victim Of Budget, Policy Shift

Susan Youtz, associate director of financial aid at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will have one less program to administer this year.
Now that the state has cut the $206,000 it used to provide in merit-based aid for the Colorado Scholars program at CU. The program, which served 206 students last year, has been eliminated.
“I would take that money back in a heart beat,” Youtz said. “Even that didn’t go far enough.”
Seven years ago, Colorado spent $15 million per year to help high-achieving students go – and decide to stay – in college. But tough economic times have forced state leaders to make tough choices. That, coupled with a growing chorus from experts on educational access saying it’s more important to sink scarce dollars into programs that allow low-income students go to college, and it’s easy to see why merit-based aid is gone.
Conversely, Colorado spends $74 million on need-based financial aid, up from $52 million in 2002-2003.

Reason for the cuts
“There was a big flurry in favor of merit-based aid at the beginning of the 1990s, following from Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship program,” said David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, based in Boulder. “At that time, need-based aid was languishing at the state level. That had to do with the fact that merit-based aid goes to people who vote and need-based goes to people who don’t.”
Then came the development of hybrid programs that coupled financial need with academic success, Longanecker said.
“Now, when you have to really cut back, states are doing the best they can to preserve need-based programs, and merit-based programs are essentially disappearing,” he said.
Washington is doing what Colorado is doing and emphasizing need-based aid, while Nevada is looking at making its merit programs more focused around financial need, Longanecker said.
Longanecker said he supports the shift.
“Merit is nice, but it doesn’t make the difference whether someone goes to college,” he said. “It did have the effect of keeping some students in-state.”
Diane Lindner, chief financial officer for state Department of Higher Education, generally concurs.
“The purpose of merit-based aid is to retain the top students,” she said. “What we believe is that those very, very top students are making decisions regardless of Colorado’s merit aid. It’s the second tier of students who may be the ones we might lose.”
It’s not that all Colorado campuses are bailing on merit-based aid, however.
UNC bucks trend
The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley spends most of its $9.2 million in aid dollars on merit-based programs, said Randall Langston, executive director of admissions and enrollment management. Langston said the institution increased its financial aid for undergraduates by $525,000 last year and created seven new scholarship programs with awards ranging form $500 to $6,000 per year thanks in part to support for such programs by the Board of Trustees.
“We recognize cuts are going to occur at certain levels,” Langston said. “Is UNC responding to those cuts? I believe the answer is ‘yes.’”
Colorado State University was only receiving $201,111 last year from the state for merit-based programs, said Sandy Calhoun, director of student financial services.
“We made up the difference with other institutional funding,” she said, noting that the state has had to make tough choices and it wouldn’t have been prudent to cut funds available for the most financially needy students.
“In a world of bad choices, I can understand why the state did this,” she said.

Need vs. merit
Jim Applegate, senior vice president for program development with the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, said Lumina has been a vocal proponent for states preserving need-based aid.
He cited a 2003 report called Engines of Inequality, which showed a trend toward wealthier students getting increasing amounts of financial aid dollars from post-secondary institutions.
Applegate said he resents the need vs. merit debate. He said it’s the wrong way to frame the conversation. He said there are many measures – other than ACT, SAT or grade point averages – of a student’s potential success in college.
While the federal government provides most college aid in this country, state aid is also vital, Applegate said.
“That aid is the last dollar in for many students that makes it possible or impossible to go to college,” he said.
Applegate pointed to other research showing that qualified low-income students may enroll in college – but have a higher chance of not completing their degree than their wealthier peers. One study showed that qualified low-income students who scored a 1400 to 1600 on the SAT had no better shot at completing a college degree than a lower-performing, wealthy student.
“I would love it if my son could get any scholarship he can get, but he’s going to go to college anyway,” Applegate said. “If a state is really trying to raise its education levels, which is key to attracting businesses, what sense is there in giving limited dollars to students who are going anyway?”
Applegate said he supports incorporating merit into the scholarship selection process, but he thinks the definition of merit needs to be expanded.
He once served on a selection committee for a scholarship program. There were students who earned 24 or 25 on the ACT and had spent part of their high school years living in homeless shelters.
“If a student has demonstrated what it takes – out of that kind of life experience – how much more meritorious can you be?” Applegate said.
Furthermore, giving students a shot at a college education is vital to the health of a society. Lumina Foundation’s goal is to increase the percentage of the U.S. population with some form of high-quality college credential or degree from its current 39 percent to 60 percent by 2025.
“In this day in time, to not get some form of post-secondary degree you’ve just about lost your ticket to the middle class,” Applegate said. “There are changing demands in our work force. An associate’s degree is now what a high school degree was.”

Julie Poppen can be contacted at

Fiscal 2008-09 merit allocation
Public Four-Year institutions
Adams State College: $22,186
Colorado School of Mines: $51,265
Colorado State University: $201,911
Colorado State Univesity-Pueblo: $34,938
Fort Lewis College: $31,267
Mesa State College: $37,111
Metropolitan State College of Denver: $122,901
University of Colorado Boulder: $206,866
University of Colorado Colorado Springs: $58,384
University of Colorado Denver:$108,456
University of Northern Colorado: $93,666
Western State College: $23,634
Private Institutions:
Colorado College: $9,296
Denver University: $54,533
Regis University: $49,098
Need comnpared to merit aid in Colorado
Need: $34.7 million
Merit: $13.1
Need: $38.4
Merit: $13.8
Need: $42.2
Merit: $14.4
Need: $47.6
Merit: $14.9
Need: $51.6
Merit: $14.9
Need: $46.0
Merit: $6.9
Need: $46.0
Merit: $6.4
Need: $52.3
Merit: $1.5
Need: $60.1
Merit: $1.5
Need: $67.0
Merit: $1.5
Need: $74.3
Merit: $1.5
Source: Colorado Department of Higher Education

Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters

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