On Nov. 25, 2020, I received an email from the University of Arizona notifying me that the required GPA and number of credits to maintain my academic scholarship was being decreased. The university said they recognized the adversity that students are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students have been displaced and learning interrupted. People are getting sick and struggling to make ends meet and the university observed that and took action.
I am a white student from a middle class family. I have professors for parents, and I have never been financially insecure. I received enormous support from the school system, and I was on the “University Track'' starting in sixth grade. All of this, and some hard work on my end, meant I started at the UA with a $15,000-a-year scholarship. It exceeds my tuition such that I receive a $1,200 check every semester from the university. I haven’t faced any adversity as a student. Not in K-12 education, and not now, during the pandemic.
When I finished reading the email about the updated scholarship requirements, I was left pondering a question that has occurred to me in the past but never been so perfectly illustrated. If societal and circumstantial adversity clearly affect learning and performance in students, then why are academic merit scholarships based only on performance, and why are they so large?
The grades and test scores students receive are far more reflective of our circumstances, teachers and schools than they are of intelligence, work ethic or ability. Students from minority communities and those facing hostile or unstable home environments face adversity on a daily basis that exceeds what COVID-19 has caused many students — yet this is not often recognized. There are scholarships and grants available to students with financial need and those who are part of a systematically oppressed group, but these earmarked resources are insufficient and their criteria far too narrow.
There is abundant research demonstrating the extent to which adverse circumstances affect students’ educational outcomes. The two most well-researched achievement gaps, as they are called in academia, are the poverty achievement gap and racial achievement gap. The poverty achievement gap is well documented. Beginning as early as kindergarten, children from poor and near-poor households significantly underperform children from middle class households across a variety of measures according to research presented by the National Center for Children in Poverty. Universities and the government recognize this gap – it’s why need based financial aid exists. The problem is that funds available to students coming from poverty routinely run out well before everyone who needs them gets access.
The case is similar with the racial achievement gap. While the gap has closed considerably in the past half-century, it remains the case that white students routinely outperform Black and Hispanic students. The lagging performance of students of color is the result of both poverty and the ills it brings, and a school system that is still deeply segregated. Again, as with students in poverty, there are scholarships and other aid available to Black and Hispanic students. This money helps to close the gap, but the funds, again, are insufficient. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institution covered by Vox found that Black students owe on average twice what white students do four years after graduating.
What these remarkable disparities in opportunity and support demonstrate is a clear need for greater consideration of adversity and systemic barriers to achievement in the process of allocating the currently scarce resources available to fund the education of students who cannot afford them on their own. Until we have made progress towards a system in which significantly greater funding is made available to close the gaps in need-based scholarship, we must find a way of more equitably allocating merit-based scholarship funding. Grades and other measures of achievement are clearly far too much a product of circumstance as opposed to ability to be the grounds on which millions of dollars is dispensed. The University of Arizona took the first step in demonstrating that they understand this by adjusting the requirements for scholarship maintenance in accordance with the more adverse lives students are living as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but greater action is required.
It's time to confront the reality that the money universities allocate to students for the grades they received in high school rewards privilege and circumstance. Merit is a word devoid of meaning in a world as unequal as ours. Merit for me meant a stable home, educated parents and great teachers. Merit is wealth, it is whiteness, it is stability at home, it’s not having to work a job after school every day, it’s having a full fridge and a mortgage instead of rent. Merit is not intelligence, determination, hard work or anything worth rewarding at all, much less to the tune of thousands of dollars. If universities are going to be a beacon of opportunity, it’s time they reconsider what deserves rewarding, and who really needs assistance.
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Aidan Rhodes is a journalism major from Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a passionate chef, athlete and writer.