Columns » Max Brantley

Rich get richer

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Arkansas State University heard from a paid consultant last week about ways to become more efficient — make more money, in other words — and perhaps even serve students better.

An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article quoted a consultant on practices at the main Jonesboro campus:

"What was notable to us was that the net tuition revenue — so this was after the sticker price of tuition and the price that students ultimately pay once they get on campus — was lowest of the peer set," the consultant said. "Jonesboro has the lowest out-of-state tuition as well, and ultimately discounts its tuition by about 44 percent to students on campus."

The consultants also found that ASU financial aid favors high-scoring students who apply first.

"What we see in practice is that those students that come from better-off families that are more able to pay are the students that have higher test scores and also apply earlier," he said. "And so they are receiving the highest amount of aid, and what that ends up doing is leaving less aid for those students who are more in need and ultimately decreases retention when they cannot consistently afford college."

It's an old story. The rich get richer. And the story isn't unique to ASU. When you place emphasis on higher achieving students the facts dictate that poorer students will disproportionately be left behind. Also, minority students will make up a disproportionate percentage of those left behind.

The University of Arkansas grants tuition breaks to high-achieving out-of-state students. Thus the huge percentage of tired, poor, struggling Texans from places like Plano and Highland Park in each freshman class.

The biggest scandal is the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, rigged by the efforts of state Sen. Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) a few years ago to further benefit the already advantaged.  A high-stakes ACT test — and no longer grades — is the standard for lottery scholarships. The amount of money given to first-year students was also reduced. Oh, sure, the money can go up later, depending on academic performance, but poverty tends to be a huge factor in early college dropouts. 

I did an analysis of the new rules a little over a year ago. Applications dropped 10 percent among whites and 40 percent among blacks. Actual awards showed similar declines — 8 percent among whites, 36 percent among blacks.

The family income for winners rose from $78,000 to $84,000 — with black winners averaging $42,000 in family income and white winners averaging $94,000.

There's been some tinkering since, particularly to help community college students, but the ASU study serves to illustrate the favoritism enjoyed by better-situated students.

Many legislators, of course, think this is as it should be. They give no thought that "merit" might be more about the good fortune of birth — racial and economic privilege and a family background unmarked by generations of discrimination.

Many experts will tell you that grades are a better indication of college success than test scores. Tests measure test-taking ability.

Lottery scholarship programs in most states have become middle-class entitlement programs. Legislators like it. The middle class — far more influential than the poor — likes it. It could be worse. On top of a system already tilted to higher incomes, Georgia now gives a total free ride to ACT scores of 26 or higher.

Lifting college completion rates is not about providing more money to kids who were going to college anyway. It's about helping those who need help most. Don't bother telling the legislature. They think poor people don't deserve health care or scholarship assistance. They should earn it. But corporations and six-figure chamber of commerce executives? They DESERVE tax dollar handouts.

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