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At many colleges and universities, merit-based scholarships are meant to attract the best and the brightest students. But opponents say they can inadvertently end up rewarding the richest applicants. That’s why some schools have started giving out need-based aid only. Hari Sreenivasan explores how Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania made the jump to improve its economic diversity.
Next: Rethinking College and how to close the graduation gap.
Higher education advocates say many colleges are increasing financial aid to affluent families, while aid to needy students remains stagnant.
Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan features one college that has decided to buck that trend.
Michael DiAntonio is the face of a new college bidding war. A gifted student in high school, DiAntonio was offered thousands of dollars in merit scholarships at several universities, even though his family was wealthy enough to pay full tuition.
Michael Anthony DiAntonio III.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
DiAntonio turned down the scholarships and chose instead to attend Franklin & Marshall, a private college in Pennsylvania, that offered him no aid at all. His family paid full tuition, room and board, $60,000 annually for four years.
This spring, DiAntonio graduated, and despite the high costs, he and his family say the education here received was well worth the investment.
MIKE DIANTONIO, Franklin & Marshall College Graduate: I would say it's worth it 100 percent. I could really excel and push myself as hard as I could and come out of it with an amazing education.
Education experts say a growing number of colleges across the country are offering their precious scholarship money to families who can already afford it.
MICHAEL DANNENBERG, Education Reform Now:
The concept of using financial aid as bait has been increasing, bait for upper-income families.
According to Michael Dannenberg with Education Reform Now, more affluent students means a better bottom line for schools.
Colleges are kind of in a competitive market, competitive game to get high-paying students. So they use financial aid as a tool.
Basically, a college that's got $20,000 to give out in financial aid, so it can get four students who will pay $15,000 out of pocket, as opposed to one very needy student who can pay nothing.
So, what could have cost the college $20,000 for one student instead earning the college $60,000.
In fact, that's the path Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was on, until five years ago, when the school took a hard look at the low-income students they were excluding.
President Dan Porterfield:
DAN PORTERFIELD, President, Franklin & Marshall College: There were an enormous number of highly qualified students that we were not able to admit because we didn't have enough financial aid.
So, Franklin & Marshall decided to scrap giving money to non-needy families and began instead to offer only need-based aid and recruit talented low-income students like sophomore Sheldon Ruby.
SHELDON RUBY, Student, Franklin & Marshall College: Right over here, we have Keiper Liberal Arts. This houses our foreign language and English department on campus.
Valedictorian of his high school class, Ruby attended a school in Everett, Pennsylvania, where only 20 of the 120 seniors went on to college.
I always knew that college was really, really expensive. And so it was something that my parents and I, like, we never really talked about.
I'm the first person over to go to college. My grandparents didn't actually get to finish high school. None of them finished the sixth grade.
Ruby's tuition is covered by both the college and federal grants. He also works as a campus tour guide and has taken out $3,000 in loans.
Don't feel constrained by what you have done in the past. It's kind of a whole new world on campus.
With a student population of only 2,300, Franklin & Marshall offers the intimate atmosphere provided by small liberal arts colleges. Ruby says that has helped him adjust to the idea that a poor kid from a low-performing high school can succeed.
I really want to go to law school. Any time I mention my goal to any of my professors, it's not like a pause where they have to think about, can I do it? It's an, OK, this is what we can do to make it happen. So, no one ever looks at me as though I can't get to where I want to be. They automatically just assume that I can do it.
In making the switch to need-based aid, away from merit scholarships, Franklin & Marshall's policy is similar to the nation's most elite schools. To afford it, they have cut spending on facilities and non-academic programs and increased their fund-raising.
The challenge that the country is facing is that higher education institutions are concerned about their revenue to such an extent that they have become less and less focused on their academic mission and more and more focused on the business reality of having to make payroll.
VIRGINIA MAKSYMOWICZ, Associate Professor, Franklin & Marshall College: You have done some really interesting things here with all of these found pieces of metal.
Virginia Maksymowicz, who has taught art and writing for 20 years, says Franklin & Marshall's new recruits are more engaged.
I think we're getting better students, who can write better and reason better and think better.
In turn, she says, full-paying students like Mike DiAntonio also benefit.
He's got better colleagues, a greater pool of students, not just the ones who can afford.
MICHAEL ANTHONY DIANTONIO III:
I have met students here from all different backgrounds of all different kinds of wealth and culture and that I have never would have met before.
DiAntonio plans to pursue a career in higher education and began work this summer at Franklin & Marshall as an adviser to prospective students.
It's communicating with students all over the country, online, in person when possible, to sort of help students to learn about college or to figure out what they want in college, to sort of help them with that process.
Dannenberg, whose organization advocates for low-income students, says more colleges needs to follow Franklin & Marshall's lead.
Franklin & Marshall was a terrible college when it came to economic diversity. They recognized that and were shamed, decided they were going to do better.
And in the course of about three years, they tripled their low-income and working-class student access. And it's a good story because I think that's important for America. Those students are going to go on to live and work in diverse environments, and they need to have experiences with people from different backgrounds.
In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the PBS NewsHour, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.
MICHAEL DANNENBERG, The Education Trust:
According to Michael Dannenberg with The Education Trust, more affluent students means a better bottom line for schools.
PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundationand American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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