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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Meriting change

Published: November 19, 2010
Section: Opinions

Approximately three-quarters of Brandeis students receive financial aid.

For some students, this aid comes in the form of merit scholarships. But, beginning with the incoming class of 2015, Brandeis is planning to phase out most merit aid, following a growing trend among universities of our size.

According to Dean of Admissions Mark Spencer, many common merit awards—such as the Justice Louis D. Brandeis scholarship, the Dean’s Award and Presidential Award—will be discontinued with the money going instead toward need-based financial aid.

If this sounds worrisome—and if you’re on merit aid, it probably does—don’t panic. Such a change is the right thing to do, and will benefit both the school and its students for years to come.

The most common mistake people make when thinking about merit aid is assuming that it is awarded purely based on a student’s academic merit, with no attention paid to financial need. But this is not always the case. Every institution is different, and all of them have different ways of treating the seemingly universal term “merit.”

At Brandeis, for example, most merit awards come from the same pool of money that need-based aid is drawn from. According to Dean of Student Financial Services Peter Giumette, some awards are given out purely for academic reasons, but many are steered toward students who need the money.

So, if you are a recipient of a merit award, there is a good chance that your FAFSA helped you just as much as your SAT scores.

Things were different a few years ago. Giumette said that Brandeis used to offer merit scholarships that were, for the most part, based solely on academic factors like high school grades, curriculum and standardized test scores. But this created some problems. Giumette said that students with wealthier families—who were nonetheless excellent students—received merit aid while the university remained unable to meet the full financial needs of students who could not afford to pay full tuition. Since a good aid package is often not enough to entice students who don’t have to worry about cost anyway, this state of affairs resulted in the loss of potential students from all income levels.

In order to address these shortfalls, Brandeis during the past few years has begun to shift more of its merit aid money toward students with greater need. Which is not to say that they are less worthy of the money than so-called merit recipients. “Most students at Brandeis are meritorious,” Spencer said. “This is a pretty strong academic pool.”

So far, this has resulted in some improvement, but only some; our aid system still has many problems today. According to the Office of Enrollment, the number of students who have received merit aid and matriculated into Brandeis has declined by 78 percent since 2006. This suggests that these awards remain ineffective tools for attracting prospective students, especially those who come from well-off families. But what’s worse is that some of these students do end up taking the money, depriving Brandeis of the ability to meet the full financial needs of the rest of its students; even now, only 85 percent of financial needs are met.

As many of you are no doubt aware, the university recently chose to remedy the latter problem by enacting a new need-based financial aid system that will incorporate elements of a “need-sensitive” admissions policy in order to meet the financial needs of Brandeis’ most desirable applicants. The goal, ultimately, is to make Brandeis more attractive—and more accessible—by meeting 100 percent of need.

It’s an ambitious goal, but one that is made all the more plausible by an influx of financial aid money that will no longer be offered to those who don’t need it. We have no reason to keep help ing high-income high achievers. If they want to come here, they will come; if not, they can go elsewhere. We need to focus on the equally high-achieving but significantly poorer students. If they choose to attend another school, it will likely be the result of a better financial package.

Competing to give these students an excellent education is part of what social justice is all about. So, I would like to think that, unlike many administrative decisions, the decision to phase out merit aid was an easy one.