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Comprehensive Exam Question 2:

The Current Status of Merit Scholarships

and Race-Specific Merit Scholarships

Brandi N. Hutchins

University of Cincinnati


Merit scholarships have increased in popularity over the last decade and race-based scholarships are being challenged due to the overwhelming claim that they discriminate on the bases of race. Resulting from the legal cases claiming reverse discrimination, the use of affirmative action and race-policies in higher education are being eliminated. Merit-based scholarships continue to increase while race and need-based scholarships are on the decline. Currently, Whites are receiving more merit-based scholarships. To examine the current status of merit-scholarships, the Georgia HOPE Scholarship Program will be studied. Conversely, to review the current status of race-based scholarships, historical landmark cases and affirmative action policies will be explored.

The Current Status of Merit Scholarships

and Race-Specific Merit Scholarships

Affirmative action is a widely discussed controversial topic. It has provided opportunities for minorities and women that were once nonexistent. Since its inception in the early 1960’s, affirmative action has opened doors and has leveled the playing field for people of color; however, many individuals are now questioning its mission and relevance. In higher education, affirmative action is a common tool used to benefit minorities. Many colleges and universities proclaim that they are an equal opportunity employer and do not discriminate based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. This encouraging statement demonstrates to future students, faculty, and staff that the university has a commitment to diversity.

Many predominately White institutions are coping with the decline in student of color enrollment. Altbach, Lomotey and Rivers (2002) suggested that student of color enrollment has been a major topic since the 1960’s, forcing many U.S. colleges and universities to improve racial diversity on campus. This also holds true for faculty and staff. Affirmative action was the one mechanism used to increase minority enrollment. It has given underrepresented students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to become more represented in many institutions by factoring in race.

To assist in the endeavors of bringing more students of color to the university, race-specific policies were implemented. Recruitment teams from admission offices have been set in place to venture out into inner-city schools to promote their universities to the minority student population. The university aspires to portray an inclusive image such as a melting pot, suggesting that the diversity on campus is recognized and embraced. These images soon become distorted when the true realization occurs that the minority population is very minimal at predominantly White institutions.

One way the university has increased its student of color population is by offering monetary awards primarily to minority students. Race-based scholarships comes in many forms: a) some awards are strictly academic, b) individual colleges award scholarships for specific majors, and c) universities develop relationships with the city or state by providing scholarships to students who attend a school in certain districts or geographic locations. Currently, the use of race-based policies in higher education is being strongly challenged because many White students feel that these restrictions violate their Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Merit-based scholarships have increased in popularity over the last decade (Heller, 2002; Farrell, 2002; Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). These scholarships award the student based on their academic accomplishments and do not make considerations based on race and social class. Everyone is considered equal in this process. Nevertheless, these scholarships have also been undoubtedly challenged because they have a selective process and minorities are not adequately represented in these award allocations.

In this paper, the author will discuss the current status and the affects of race-based and merit-based scholarships in higher education. The challenges consequently affecting affirmative action will be addressed, along with landmark legal cases that have changed the course of national policies. The author will also investigate race policies and their prospective outlook in higher education.

Landmark Affirmative Action Cases

Race-based scholarships began in the 1960’s to assist those who were financially disadvantaged (Ware & Determan, 1966). Also, race-based scholarships were important given that they helped diversify many college campuses at a time when minorities were blatantly underrepresented. Throughout history, race-based scholarships are still used to promote diversity on campus. To some they grant opportunity, to others they are tactics for diversification. Presently, race-based scholarships are being opposed by some Whites claiming that they experience reverse discrimination.

As the title suggests, race-based scholarships are awarded on the premise of race.

Some race-based scholarships cater to all students of color, while others may have clauses or stipulations in order to apply. Many of these scholarships are also merit-based, requiring students to have a certain grade point average or test score. A majority of these scholarships are renewable under the condition that the student maintains their academic requirements.

Recently, many race-based policies including race scholarships have come under attack. It has been claimed that they discriminate on the bases of race. Many Whites have verbalized their concerns, stating that race policies are unfair and they violate their Fourteenth Amendment right and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act; nonetheless, other minority groups have also verbalized their concerns, especially when a scholarship only grants an award to one racial group.

There are many legal cases on racial policies that have impacted the future of affirmative action and the current use of race in the admission process and scholarship distributions. Many of the historical cases regarding race in higher education where filed by Blacks who were discriminated against in admission policies (Moore, 2005). However, changes occurred in the 1970’s after the pivotal case, The University of California Regents vs. Bakke (1978). Whites claiming reverse discrimination became a common occurrence.

Bakke, a White male, sued the University of California claiming that he was denied admission into medical school because of his race. Bakke had also applied to 12 other medical schools and was rejected. The university had instituted affirmative action programs to increase their minority student population in their medical school. Bakke proclaimed that the University of California Medical School rejected his application based on preferential admission policies for students of color. Of the 100 medical school openings that year, 16 slots were set aside for minority applicants. The California Supreme Court favored Bakke; however, this decision was appealed and was tried in the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that race quotas were illegal; however, the university continued to allow race considerations in their admission practices (Moore, 2005; Teddlie & Freeman, 2002; Malman, 1996)

In Hopwood vs. Texas (1996), Cheryl Hopwood sued the University of Texas Law School because she was denied admission (Moore, 2005). Again, affirmative action was an issue in this case. She claimed that the admission requirements were set higher for White students than minorities. In the past, Texas has had an extensive history of discrimination against minorities, especially Blacks (Moore, 2005). The university implemented a desegregation plan which required the state to admit 10 percent Hispanics and 5 percent Blacks into its entering law school class. According to Moore (2005), this was not a quota, but a goal to improve its diversity. The court ruled in favor of Hopwood, finding that the university violated her equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that diversity was not a compelling state interest (Moore, 2005; Olivas, 1999; Anderson, 2002).

Gratz vs. Bollinger (1997) and Grutter vs. Bollinger (1997) are two recent landmark cases in higher education pertaining to affirmative action (Moore, 2005). As a comparison to the Bakke decision, the University of Michigan faced many legal challenges due to the use of race in their admission policies. Jennifer Gratz and another White student, were denied admission to the University of Michigan in 1995 and 1997. They met the admission requirements and filed suit declaring that the university admitted minorities that had lower test scores. The university indicated that students of color were underrepresented. The two also argued that students of color admitted into the university did meet the admission requirements. The plaintiffs claimed discrimination on the bases that students of color and athletes were granted extra points on their applications (Moore, 2005).

Barbara Grutter was denied admission to the University of Michigan Law School in 1996 (Moore, 2005). The university was sensitive to the needs of underrepresented students of color and was known to enroll large numbers of minority students. Grutter’s grade point average and test scores qualified for her admission. She felt that the university displayed racial preference to minority applicants (Moore, 2005).

In the ruling of both cases, the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act played a pivotal role; nonetheless, in 2003 the court found that the use of race policies in the admission process was constitutional. However, the use of the university’s point system was unconstitutional (Devins, 2003; Moore, 2005). The University of Michigan upheld that the decision to use race to diversify the student body was educationally beneficial. This decision aided in the reduction of racial stereotypes, and supported a more racially tolerant society, in which the Supreme Court concurred (Moore, 2005).

Each of these riveting cases and countless others that pertain to racial policies, have changed the current status of how race is viewed in higher education. Many of the cases filed mostly pertain to Whites who have been denied admission; however, Whites are not the only racial group to sue on the basis of race. In 1991, Daniel Podberesky sued the University of Maryland claiming that he was denied a scholarship because of his race. The university had instituted the Benjamin Banneker scholarship (a race-based scholarship) that was awarded to 30 to 40 Black students annually (Anonymous, 1998). Podberesky argued that he did not receive the scholarship because he was Hispanic. The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that Podberesky be considered for the scholarship and denied the university the right to appeal the case (Harvard Law Review, 1994; Mulman, 1996; Moore, 2005). As a result of this ruling in 1995, the five states in the Fourth Circuit Court: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia cannot institute race-based scholarships; they are now illegal (Anonymous, 1998).

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported the following changes that occurred following the Podberesky case: the Benjamin Banneker Scholarship Program merged with the university’s Key Scholarship Program. Nineteen of the 71 recipients were Black, reducing the number of Black applicants in half. After the court’s decision, the University of Virginia’s Achievement Award created in the 1980’s, provided full tuition for approximately 50 Black students with the use of private money. This award was modified to admit non-Black minorities and White students. The University of Texas terminated the state’s minority scholarship program to avoid legal ramifications (Anonymous, 1998). These legal proceedings have drastically changed minority’s access to higher education.

In most of the research, affirmative action has been used to remedy past discrimination. Opponents of affirmative action feel that provisions have been made to apologize for past discrimination practices. As a result of the many court rulings, Texas, Washington, Florida, and California have forbid the use affirmative action policies in their universities (Cross, 2000). The states have declared all race-based programs illegal. Nonetheless, in order to assist students of color and those of lower socioeconomic status, programs and scholarships have changed their language. The use of the word “underrepresented” and the use of certain geographic locations have been strategically inserted to aid in the support of certain populations without referencing race.

Merit Scholarships

Merit scholarships have increased in number over the last decade. Heller (2002) indicates that through collaboration with the Higher Education Act of 1965, Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, and the State Student Incentive Grant Program, it was encouraged that states provide scholarships to fund higher educations so that all students could obtain access. The Pell Grant, established in 1972, was another incentive to give students who came from lower income families the opportunity to attend college based on financial need and socioeconomic status (Geiger, 1999).

Currently, academic merit awards have replaced many need-based awards (Heller, 2002). The most popular and well know merit scholarship is the Georgia HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship. In 1993, the HOPE program was founded and is one of the oldest state-sponsored merit scholarships. It has been a model for many other merit scholarships in the country. The scholarship was established by the Georgia Student Finance Commission which was founded in 1965 (Heller, 2002). This commission has dedicated itself to help Georgia residents receive education beyond high school. The monetary commitment for this scholarship is funded by the Georgia state lottery. Students considered for this scholarship must be a resident of the state of Georgia and plan to attend an in-state university. This award is based on high school achievement. Students must obtain at least a 3.2 cumulative grade point average on a 4.0 scale. HOPE provides full tuition, fees and a $300 book allowance to any in-state public university. For private institutions, HOPE awards $3000. HOPE does not provide room and board for both public and private universities (HOPE Regulations).

Academic excellence is paramount for the HOPE scholarship. Many common issues have surfaced for students upon receiving the award. In order to meet the academic standards, students have been known to enroll in fewer classes per term, withdraw from the classes that are difficult, and enroll in courses that are less demanding and challenging (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). HOPE has implemented checkpoints to insure that students are maintaining their academic requirements and limiting the use of decreasing credit hours when students are faced with difficulties (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). Based on Cornwell and Mustard’s (2000) observation, those who lose the HOPE scholarship tend to be those who have majored in science, computer, and engineering fields; nonetheless, there are no racial differences in students who fail to meet the scholarship requirements. The HOPE award has instituted stricter academics guidelines to balance the scholarship’s budget. In its attempts to toughen academic standards, in 2002, high school students had to earn an A or B in core courses instead of less challenging elective courses. Increasing the academic standards has reduced the number of qualified applicants by approximately 30 percent (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002).

Who Receives Merit Awards?

According to Cornwell and Mustard (2002), high schools with a large concentration of African Americans receive fewer HOPE scholarships while schools with larger concentrations of Asians receive more awards. They add that these variations could result from inadequate preparation, differences in families and peers, and the quality of the school. Cornwell and Mustard (2002) also report that freshmen enrollment in four-year public and private schools increased by 5.9 percent due to the HOPE Scholarship. They also state that White enrollment increased 3.6 percent and Black enrollment increased about 15 percent (2002). One reason for the increase in Black enrollment could be attributed to the state of Georgia’s Black family’s having lower incomes than White families (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). The HOPE scholarship could also be attractive to Black students because they allow them the opportunity to attend college in the state of Georgia, and also have the option of attending one of the ten historically Black colleges in the state (Cornwell and Mustard, 2002).

The major question that has arisen regarding HOPE and other merit-based scholarships is how they meet the needs of students from lower income families. One way that HOPE committed to need-based students was the implementation of the HOPE Grant which specifically targets lower income students. In 2002-2003, HOPE provided 397 million dollars in scholarships and this number continues to increase. In 2003-2004 the HOPE grant provided 103.7 million dollars in funding but the number for need-based aid continues to decrease (Cornwell & Mustard, 2002). Cornwell and Mustard (2002) suggests that the commitment for need-based funding rest solely on the state’s commitment to provide aid for that population. Also, for states that provide funding for need-based awards, there is a greater change that funding will decrease if the state has implemented a merit-based award. Heller (2002) reported that between 1991 and 2001, state sponsored need-based awards for undergraduates increased 7.7 percent, while merit- based programs increased 18.3 percent. Cornwell and Mustard (2002) give two major benefits of the HOPE scholarship, 1) since the early 1990’s, over 30 states have instituted merit funding and half of them are modeled after HOPE, and 2) HOPE is responsible for the increase in academically talented students who remain in the state of Georgia to attend college (p.95).

Another merit award that has grown in popularity is the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship. It is a scholarship modeled after HOPE which is awarded based on high school academic achievement and test scores. It is a three tiered scholarship with the following criteria (Ferrell, 2002):

• The Academic Scholarship = 3.5 grade point average, 15 credits of college preparatory courses, 75 hours of community service, and 1270 SAT or 28 ACT.

• The Medallion Scholarship = 3.0 grade point average, 15 credits of college preparatory courses, and 970 SAT or 20 ACT.

• The Gold Seal Vocational Scholarship = 3.0 grade point average, 15.5 core credits required for high school graduation, a 3.5 grade point average in a minimum of three vocational course, and earn a minimum score on each subsection of the SAT or ACT (p. 53).

In Ferrell’s (2002) research, the question was posed, “who are the recipients of the Florida Bright Scholarship?” For the years 1999 to 2002, there were significant differences between Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic students. Over 75 % of eligible recipients were White, 11 % were Hispanic, 9 % were Black, and 5 % were Asian. It was found that fewer Blacks and Hispanics received the Florida Bright Scholarship (Ferrell, 2002). Overall, McPherson and Schapiro (1994) found that Whites who attend private institutions receive more merit aid than Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics; however, Blacks and Hispanics who attend public institutions were more likely than Whites to obtain larger merit awards. Overall, Whites receive more merit-aid than any other racial group. Consequently, this may be true since the White population at public universities is greater than other ethnic groups.

As a result of the growing trend of merit-based scholarships, many feel that they have provided the changes needed in higher education. Heller (2002) proposed three motivations for the use of merit awards: 1) they promote college access and attainment, 2) they encourage and reward students who work hard academically, and 3) they attract the brightest students to attend college in the state (p. 19). However, merit scholarships have also been criticized. Cornwell and Mustard (2002) indicate that one criticism of merit awards is that they reduce the state’s commitment to need-based awards. McPherson and Schapiro (1994) reported that from 1983 to 1992, more public universities increased their amount of merit-based aid than they did need-based aid. Ferrell (2002) also noted that they focus more on the students likely to succeed instead of those who are in need of financial support. Students from lower income families are at a disadvantage.

Most merit award recipients come from affluent families and the award may only be a resume enhancers. To support this claim McPherson and Schapiro (1994) pointed out that merit awards may decrease the cost of college for a student who most likely could finance their education. The student possibly would have attended the university anyway without the supplemental award (McPherson & Schapiro, 1994). In actuality, the recipient probably had a bright future to begin with and the merit award would only make the student work a little harder academically (McPherson & Schapiro, 1994). Idealistically, there is no real incentive for the student.

Ness and Noland (2004) assert that there is a disproportion between lower income students versus students from upper and middle class backgrounds. Some feel that the needy students should be the focus since their chances of attending college is minimal. Ness and Noland (2004) reported results from a national study from the Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. They obtained merit scholarships information from four states. The findings in the report showed: a) there was a shift from need-based to merit-based scholarships, b) merit-based scholarships disproportionately were awarded to middle and upper class students, c) merit-based scholarships were granted to a lower percentage of minority students, and d) merit-based scholarships were given to students who would have already attended college rather than to students who did not have the resources to attend college (pp. 4-5).

Politically, many universities use the profiles of academically talented students to elevate their prestigious image. McPherson and Schapiro (1994) indicate that there are competitive forces that explain the use of merit scholarships. Schools of lesser reputation entice students through the use of merit awards. Another factor is that schools of equal quality and reputation use merit scholarships to compete with other universities. The merit award, in this case, is used to enhance the school’s appearance to make it more attractive to the student (McPherson & Schapiro, 1994).

Opposition to Affirmative Action

Many qualified Whites feel victimized by policies and standards established through affirmative action. Solorzano and Yosso (2002) explain that the University of Michigan felt using race was a good policy because “it diversifies the student body and is needed to make up for the past and current racial and gender discrimination at the University of Michigan” (p.155). Many predominately White universities do not agree with their assumption. Some feel that admission policies should be based upon the qualifications of the applicant. Altbach, Lomotey and Rivers (2002) indicated that many White students and faculty resent the special privileges that affirmative action grants to minorities. Anderson (2002) conveys that “many Whites feel that affirmative action deprives their children of privileges and opportunities” (p.16).

Fraser and Kick (2000) report that the majority of Whites do not favor preferential treatment for Blacks which is reflected in the research of Bobo and Kluegel who found that many “Whites do not feel that the government should feel obligated to assist Blacks” (p. 13). They explained that much of the opposition to race-based policies is a construct of symbolic racism. Symbolic racism is the ideology that “discrimination is a thing of the past and that Blacks, in particular, demand too much from society while not trying hard enough to make it on their own. Therefore, Blacks violate the American stratification ethos, a core component of what it means to be a U.S. citizen, which embraces the Protestant work ethic, conventional morality, and respect for traditional authority” (Fraser & Kick, 2000, p. 15).

Feldman and Huddy (2005) referenced the research of Kinder and Sanders who found that Whites feel that “Blacks do not try hard enough to overcome their difficulties and they take what they have not earned” (p.169). Feldman and Huddy (2005) define this as racial resentment. Virtanan and Huddy (1998) further stated that this prejudice stems from the special treatment given to Blacks who do not deserve it. The new racism that has emerged emphases the belief that Blacks are unwilling to help themselves; if they did they would be on the same level as Whites, without the need of assistance or special privileges.

According to Sears, Larr, Carrillo, and Kosterman (1997), Whites have opposed principles such as affirmative action and proclaim that Whites are more opposed to racially targeted policies than they are to policies that target the poor of all races. Bobo and Kluegel (1993) give 3 reasons for this opposition:

1. As a result of their self-interest, White Americans are most likely not supportive of policies that they do not benefit from, which imposes financial burdens on taxpayers.

2. Race-target policies violate basic American norms and are unfair.

3. Whites feel that their equality is ignored because of race-targeted policies (p. 443-444).

White conservatives feel that race policies violate individualism and equal treatment. The acquisition of race-targeted policies is opposed more than other forms of governmental assistance to the poor (Feldman & Huddy, 2005; Sears et al., 1997).

Cross (2000) proclaimed that colleges have benefited from the use of race-conscious policies to recruit and retain students of color. He provided a list of race practices that are currently implemented at many universities:

• Special funded recruitment programs targeted specifically for Black and Hispanic students.

• On-campus invitational events (such as minority student welcome events or programs that introduce students of color to the campus) in order to recruit.

• Tutorial programs designed for incoming matriculating Black students.

• Admission offices keeping special files in order to insure that student of color applications are not overlooked.

• The designation of minority affairs officers who work specifically with Black and Hispanic students to help them adjust to college life, specifically on campuses that are 90 % White.

• Sponsoring SAT/ACT preparation courses for students who reside in the inner-city.

• Purchasing lists of names and addresses of Black and Hispanic students who have achieved academically (p.63).

With the trend to ban race-based policies in education, all of the above could be a thing of the past. Cross (2000) further detailed that the infamous Gates Millennium Scholarship Program, that has provided many awards to students of color, could be abolished as well as donor and alumni donations that are racially targeted. Student organizations that are racial exclusive could also be terminated.

According to Cancian (1998), the discussion has been to end race-based programs and move towards class-based affirmative action which would give privileges to those labeled as disadvantaged. She further addressed the problems that could arise in how the term disadvantaged is defined (1998). Cancian (1998) asked the question, “Is it merely looking at socioeconomic status, or could it be defined by a multitude of factors such as family dysfunction, instability, or substance abuse?” Cancian (1998) suggested that Blacks and Hispanics would also benefit from this form of affirmative action given the disparities regarding their income and special needs. Cancian (1998) stated that class-based affirmative action could be another means to the same end. She further makes the comment that Whites cannot become Black in order to benefit from Affirmative Action programs. Blacks may have the preconceived notion that they can manipulate Affirmative Action to their advantage. They may equate that being Black means special treatment and privileges. Class-based affirmative action could have similar consequences, for example, a program targeted to single-parents could unintentionally cause a deterrent to marriage. Cross (2000) stated that many of the legal, social, and racial conservatives feel that all race-conscious policies in higher education should be terminated immediately and that color-blind policies should be implemented. A color blind policy would end the use of race and class considerations.


Cross (2000) reported data from the United States General Accounting Office, proclaiming that four percent of scholarships were set aside for Blacks in the United States. Blacks only represent 12 % of the nation’s population. This report illustrates that Whites are benefactors of most national scholarships; therefore, Blacks only receive a small portion of this scholarship funding. It has been predicted that race-based scholarships and other race policies are losing popularity. This decline in notoriety derives from White and Black conservative political views. As stated previously, many states have banned the use of race policies through court decisions; other states may soon take similar action to eliminate affirmative action.

What many in society fail to realize is that many minorities are underrepresented and disadvantaged. The playing field has never been equal. For generations, they have been deprived of privileges and opportunities. Affirmative action is a tool to open the door to equal opportunity. Amazingly, race is still a major topic of discussion and implementing a color-blind policy could mean that fewer minorities will have access to higher education.


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