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Many States Award Merit Aid to Students Who Are Under-Prepared for College

May 18, 2010

In a paper presented at the annual meeting of the AERA, Angela D. Bell and Robert E. Anderson offer evidence that many states are failing to promote adequate standards for college-readiness. By setting the standards for merit-based financial aid lower than typical college admissions requirements, states send the wrong signals about what it takes to be prepared for a postsecondary education.

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Few Students are Ready for College-Level Coursework

Economists and education experts have been echoing the same message for years: In the 21st century knowledge economy, college is essential for success in almost any field. And higher education isn't just good for individuals - having more college-educated citizens makes for a more productive workforce and a healthier economy.

In spite of the importance of postsecondary education, America's schools are failing to adequately prepare students for the academic rigors of college. Among the high school graduating class of 2004, only 26% of students took a curriculum that researchers characterize as 'academic.' In a more recent study conducted by ACT, the organization found that among ACT test takers (who are presumably planning to go to college), only 70% took or planned to take the core college curriculum.

This lack of preparation is forcing many of our nation's students to play 'catch-up' in college. According to the U.S. Department of Education, about one-third of first-year students in 2007-2008 at American colleges and universities had to take at least one remedial course. That number rises to a shocking 42% at public 2-year colleges. While it's important to offer remedial courses, taking them tends to increase the financial burden of college as well as the time to degree. Many scholarships can't be applied toward remedial courses and students are left shouldering the burden of the cost while delaying their path to graduation.

State agencies have enacted a number of measures hoping to increase college access and improve completion rates. Among these are merit-based financial aid programs launched in the early 1990s by 17 states, many of which aim to keep students in their home states after graduation. Unfortunately, these programs have had mixed success. Education research has found little evidence that they increase the overall number of college-going students, promote college completion for aid recipients or keep students in-state after graduation.

In fact, many of these well-meaning aid programs may be backfiring. In a paper presented at the 2010 meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA), Angela D. Bell and Robert E. Anderson examined what effect state merit scholarship programs are having on college preparation among American public school students. They found that not only do the programs fail to improve college-readiness, they may be hindering students by promoting misconceptions about what it takes to be qualified for postsecondary study.

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Rigorous Curricula Correlated with College Success

State merit aid programs typically reward good GPAs and high standardized test scores, as well as high school graduation. While some researchers have found that students' scores on high-stakes tests such as the SAT went up just after the implementation of merit aid programs, these effects tend to level out, and aren't correlated with an increase in the overall number of college students or college graduates.

So if a good high school GPA and high test scores don't correlate with college success, what does? One state aid program offers some insight into the problem. Indiana's Twenty-first Century Scholars program requires that applicants take the state's 'Core 40' college preparatory curriculum. After the implementation of the aid program, more students joined Core 40 and the percentage of students enrolled in college in Indiana increased across all ethnic groups.

While Indiana's program wasn't included in Bell and Anderson's data analysis because it is primarily need-based with only a component of merit, it does shed some light on how an aid program might effectively increase college enrollment and completion rates. Education researchers have found that the academic intensity of a student's high-school curriculum counts more than any other factor in predicting their success in earning a bachelor's degree. The effect even persists among first-generation college students, who have lower completion rates than almost any other group. Those who had taken a more rigorous high school curriculum were more likely to stay in college than their first-gen peers.

Bell and Anderson suggest that Indiana's success can be attributed to the fact that it offers a financial incentive for high school students to pursue a truly college-preparatory curriculum. This is particularly important for low-income students, for whom the expense of college can put it too far out of reach to justify taking more rigorous high school courses.

High costs aren't the only reason that many students aren't making the effort to effectively prepare for college. Bell and Anderson note that the public education system has perpetuated certain myths that confuse students and their parents about what it takes to be college-ready. These misconceptions include the idea that community colleges have no academic standards, some years in high school aren't important and high school graduation inherently prepares you for college.

Of course, education advocates argue that high school graduation should prepare students for college. But in truth, most public high school standards fail to align themselves with college admissions requirements or the academic background that is necessary for postsecondary success. Recent research indicates that only 20 American states have high school graduation requirements that match college- and career-readiness standards that include four years of grade-level English and challenging math courses, and even those standards often fall short of the science and foreign language skills required by many public colleges and universities.

State financial aid programs could help correct that misalignment by encouraging high school students to take a more rigorous curriculum than is required for graduation. Indiana's program offers a successful model of how that can be accomplished. Taking the ongoing problem into consideration as well as Indiana's success, Bell and Anderson set out to examine the requirements of America's 17 state-funded, merit-based financial aid programs.

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Merit Programs Fail to Promote College-Readiness

The researchers found that 15 out of the 17 state programs do have either an explicit or de facto statewide curriculum requirement. The total number of required credits vary significantly, but they're otherwise fairly consistent in demanding coursework in the four core areas (English, math, science and social studies), although few include foreign language, another key component of a college-prep curriculum. However, a large number of credits does not necessarily make for a successful curriculum - the quality and level of the courses are essential for imparting college-level skills.

Quality is outside the scope of Bell and Anderson's study, so they focused on the level and rigor of required courses, as well as their subjects. They researched college-preparatory programs and came up with five curricula that cover established benchmarks of college-readiness. In order of difficulty, these curricula are:

  1. The New Basics curriculum promoted by the National Committee on Excellence in Education
  2. The ACT core college-prep curriculum
  3. Achieve, Inc.'s curriculum, which the non-profit organization uses to assess whether state graduation requirements are 'college and career ready'
  4. The 'essential core' promoted by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB)
  5. The 'advanced preparation' curriculum put forth by the National Postsecondary Education Commission (NPEC) in a recent study

Bell and Anderson compared the 15 states that do have curricular requirements with the above curricula to find out if they meet major college-preparatory benchmarks. The results were pretty dismal - only five even met the lowest standards (New Basics), although nine out of the remaining 10 schools only lacked the foreign language component. Four states met the ACT standards, which don't include foreign language but have higher-level math requirements than New Basics. Three states met the Achieve standards, which includes four years of both English and math. Two states met the SREB essential core requirements, which extend the minimum math requirement and have higher standards for science courses. No states met the requirements for NPEC's 'advanced preparation' curriculum.

It's clear that the requirements set forth by state merit aid programs are failing to match college-readiness standards established by the education community. Bell and Anderson also wanted to find out if the requirements aligned with local high school graduation requirements or admission requirements for public 4-year colleges and universities.

Of the 15 that have curricular requirements, 14 align with high school graduation criteria. This is useful in clarifying the requirements for scholarship applicants, which widens the pool of applicants, but as Bell and Anderson have established, simply graduating from high school is insufficient for preparing students for college.

Three of the 15 programs do have criteria that are more rigorous than high school graduation requirements, and five states even have curricular criteria that match published requirements for unconditional admission to public 4-year institutions: Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, South Dakota and Wyoming. Only one state program (Georgia's) aligns with both high school graduation and university admission requirements.

Bell and Anderson take pains to note that there has been 'considerable movement' toward adopting a more rigorous high school curriculum. Many states indicate that they're planning curricular changes in the next few years that will bring high schools more in line with college- and career-readiness standards. Nevertheless, Indiana's success offers evidence that state merit aid programs could instigate real change if they used their financial incentives to encourage students to pursue a more academically rigorous curriculum.

The researchers do note that there is a potential drawback to having more rigorous requirements associated with merit aid programs. In the past, making requirements more stringent has excluded many low-income and minority students. But simply making the scholarships easier to win doesn't actually better prepare students for college. To the contrary, it sets students up to fail by offering them a false perception of what is required to succeed in college. Indiana's scholarship program increased college enrollment for all groups because it increased the number of students participating in the college preparatory program. If public high schools work with scholarship programs to increase access to a college-prep curriculum then college access - and completion - rates can be raised everywhere.

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