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Shrinking Access to Higher Education: Disappearing Minority Scholarships

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Let’s celebrate Fajr DeLane (above), recent graduate of Clarke Central High School and a winner of the Gates Millennium Scholarship!  One of 89 winners in the state of Georgia and 1,000 nationwide, Fajr will be using her full-tuition scholarship at (May 24 update: Howard University in Washington, DC).

In case readers don’t know about this scholarship, here’s what their website says:  “The Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) Program, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was established in 1999 to provide outstanding African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic American students with an opportunity to complete an undergraduate college education in any discipline area of interest.”

But if you are a student in the Class of 2017 and beyond, tough luck.  The Gates Foundation has terminated support for this program after the Class of 2016.  Instead, a new program will take its place.  Details are sketchy; speculation abounds.  Perhaps the new program will be smaller and limited to those of Hispanic descent.  The Gates website itself talks about more access to higher education for everyone, but so far it’s not clear how the demise of the Gates Millennium Scholarship will enable that.  The up to 1,000 students per year since 1999 who have benefited from it are at least temporarily the end of the line.

The situation is clearer, but even more dire, over at the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.  The National Achievement Scholarship Program, founded in 1964 at the same time as the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was designed “specifically to encourage Black Americans to continue their education.”  Over 30,000 African-Americans have used this scholarship, part of the larger National Merit Scholarship competition, to go on to great things.  Alumni of this program include the first female African-American astronaut, Mae Jemison, the daughter of a roofer and an elementary school teacher in Decatur, Alabama.  Jemison went to Stanford on this scholarship.  Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is also an alumna of this scholarship program.  And so is former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.

But after more than a half-century, poof, the National Achievement Scholarship Program disappeared with little notice last fall.  It is being replaced by a scholarship program for graduate school for graduates of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).  There is apparently no effort to replace the scholarships that once went to African-American high-school seniors.  That’s gone.  Read more in a Washington Post op-ed I co-authored in early March about the puzzling and troubling termination of this scholarship program.

What’s going on here?  In my household, we have a saying: “Once is a fluke, but twice is a trend.”  This is a really strange time in American higher education history to end programs that provide the ability for African-Americans, and others of color, to attend college on scholarships.  Speaking as a college professor at a very white university in the not-nearly-so-white state of Georgia, I think we need more of these merit-based scholarships for people of color, not fewer.  But that’s not what’s happening.

Speaking of Georgia, you might think, “Well, at least we’ve still got the HOPE Scholarship.”  

Not so fast.

During my listening tour throughout the district, I learned about changes to the HOPE that will make it harder and harder for students who aren’t in a lot of advanced classes to even obtain HOPE.  As the Savannah Morning-Herald summarized these changes way back in December 2013,

The latest change requires students to take rigorous courses to qualify for both the HOPE and the Zell Miller scholarships. Rigorous courses, according to the state, include advanced high school courses such as calculus, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or dual enrollment college courses.

Beginning next year, the class of 2015 will have to have earned at least two full credits from the state rigorous course list to qualify for HOPE. The class of 2016 will have to complete three rigorous course credits, and the class of 2017 and all subsequent graduating classes will have to complete at least four course credits from the rigor list.

What does this mean?  From here on, if students don’t have four advanced courses on their transcripts, no HOPE.  Nada.  Zilch.

Looking at the list of rigorous courses that count toward this new HOPE regulation, basically they are AP and IB courses.

But what if your high school doesn’t offer IB or a lot of AP courses?  What if, God forbid, you are not cut out for a lot of AP courses?  Then what?

No HOPE.

Simple as that.

Yes, really.

In this era of expensive tuition and fees, that means shrinking access to higher education.

This is a complete upending of the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship–the whole thing’s turned upside down.  Back in November 1992, the state lottery was approved in a close vote (52% for/48% against).  The concept was to create universal pre-K, instructional technology program, and free tuition for two years (later expanded to four years) for college to anyone with a 3.0 GPA in high school who was admitted to a public college or university and whose annual family income was at or less than $66,000.

In other words, the HOPE was supposed to be for poor and middle-class families.  Yes, really!

But by July 1995, the family income cap was completely removed.  If they’d lived here in Georgia, Donald Trump’s kids could have gotten the HOPE Scholarship from that point forward.

Now, with the requirement of more and more advanced coursework in the pursuit of “rigor,” the final vestige of the HOPE Scholarship as a means for lifting up those from the poorest parts of Georgia will vanish.  From here on, poor people will gamble so that wealthy kids can go to UGA and other universities.  Look around in Athens at all those “luxury living” temples downtown–that’s HOPE money, indirectly, fueling the infinity-edge pool and the private drunk buses and the enormous vehicles that can’t fit into normal parking places.

Athens benefits from this redirection of HOPE in some ways.  But it’s a fundamental shafting of the poor and middle class in this state–many of them people of color.

So, from the Gates Millennium Scholarships to the National Achievement Scholarships to the HOPE Scholarship, there is a consistent theme here.  Access to higher education is getting limited, by the elimination or redirection of historically beneficial programs.

This is a much bigger issue than a single board of education member or even a single board can tackle.  But hell should be raised about what’s going on.  Don’t pull the ladder away from the next generation.  The dream deferred could blow up in our faces.

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