University Testing: Scholarships

Many state-funded, college-based, and private scholarship programs are increasingly basing receipt of financial aid on measures of academic "merit" rather than monetary need. The amount given out by states under "merit" programs now more than doubles the money earmarked for "need-based" scholarships: in early 2001, 13 states offered "merit-based" funding to students that totaled $709 million, while in 1998-99 only $325 million was given out based on financial need.

"Merit-based" scholarship programs frequently rely on high school GPA, class rank, and/or standardized test scores to determine eligibility. When test score requirements are employed, scholarship recipients usually have to meet "cut-off" (minimum) scores on the SAT I, ACT, AP, SAT II, or state graduation exams. However, rigid "cut-off" test score requirements for scholarships or admission are against test-maker guidelines for both the SAT and ACT, in part because of the variability inherent in all standardized test scores. The SAT I, for example, has a standard error of difference (the amount two scores must differ before they indicate ability differences) of 40-44 point on the Verbal portion and 42-44 points on the Math section. Setting "cut-off" scores to determine who is meritorious is arbitrary at best, and psychometrically unsound at worst. Despite these violations of their own guidelines, test-makers have done little to curb such misuses.

The use of test score minumums results in "merit" aid disproportionately going to upper-income, White students who are already more likely to attend college than their lower-income peers and students of color. For example, in Michigan more than half of the "merit" scholarships go to students in high schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students qualify for free lunch. "Merit-based" aid given out by state governments for state college and university tuition would seem to contradict the central mission of these institutions - to make higher education affordable and accessible to a wide range of students.

Visit the following pages to learn more about scholarship programs with test score requirements:

Florida Bright Futures Scholarship - review data on the racial breakdown of scholarship recipients and read FairTest's letter and press release

Michigan Merit Award - read a research paper analyzing the discriminatory impact of using Michigan's MEAP exam to award financial aid

UCLA (formerly Harvard) Civil Rights Project - read a report published by the Harvard Civil Rights Project on the negative social consequences of merit scholarships

Massachusetts Koplik Certificate of Mastery - investigate the ways test score requirements result in very few students of color earning this state-funded scholarship

States with "merit" scholarships - view a partial list of states with "merit-based" aid programs

National Merit Scholarship - learn how this prestigious scholarship competition improperly uses test scores to screen recipients

Examiner articles - read FairTest Examiner articles that discuss scholarship programs with test score requirements