There’s something strange other students will do that I’ve begun to notice. Occasionally, I’ll mention my merit scholarship. This isn’t a frequent occurrence — while I believe financial transparency is important, I generally think it’s in poor taste to go out of my way to mention my scholarship to other students. Still, it will come up from time to time in conversation.
I can’t, I have to go to an event for my scholarship tonight.
Oh, we know each other through my scholarship.
Strangely, people will assume what I really mean is need-based financial aid. One time, I worked up the courage to call someone out on this: No, it’s not financial aid, I retorted. I have a merit scholarship. The acquaintance I was speaking to was immediately apologetic and explained that they thought I was really talking about financial aid because they knew I had grown up low-income — and because so few students receive scholarships from the University of Michigan.
I don’t think people have any malicious intent when they subconsciously swap the terms “scholarship” and “financial aid.” Nevertheless, it points towards broader issues with merit scholarships; to many of my peers, and especially those who know about my family background, I just don’t seem like the type of person who would get a merit scholarship. In fact, it seemed like my financial need was almost antithetical to the idea that I could receive a scholarship—a tacit acknowledgment that merit, as we commonly understand it, is really just a proxy for wealth.
My merit scholarship sent me to college; I doubt I would be at the University of Michigan without it. While I’m incredibly grateful for the donors who have supported my education, I’ve begun to see my scholarship as a symptom of a broken system. More often than not, scholarships are awarded to students who need them the least: Research at New America, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., found that “about two out of every five dollars these schools provided in institutional aid went to students the government deemed able to afford college without need-based aid.” Harold Levy, former New York City schools chancellor, argued in an op-ed for CNN that this current system of “taking scarce financial aid dollars from low-income students to give to students who don’t need it amounts to Robin Hood in reverse – robbing from the poor to give to the rich.”
So then why do schools still offer merit scholarships when they know they aren’t really working? This nonsensical approach to financial aid, in my view, stems from a narrow idea of what merit really is — flashy awards, a lengthy resume of internships and volunteer experiences, near-perfect standardized test scores — and the way that it ultimately benefits wealthy and privileged students at the expense of their less affluent peers. In a time where college is increasingly unaffordable and socioeconomic mobility is declining, the implications are clear: It’s time to abolish merit scholarships.
In March of my senior year of high school, I received an email from the University’s admissions office. Initially, I thought it was a scam. The email was short, my first name was misspelled and it was offering something that seemed too good to be true. But it wasn’t. I was awarded the Stamps Scholarship, a full-ride award named after the same wealthy donors who fund the Art & Design program at the University. All admitted freshmen are automatically considered for the Stamps Scholarship; the admissions office passes along information about students who may be a good fit and that pool is then narrowed down to a final list of recipients.
I don’t think I fit the profile of a typical full-ride recipient. I don’t say this to be humble — I think I worked hard in high school and earned my spot at the University. But nothing about me was truly exceptional compared to my peers. I had good grades, but only in the context of my low-performing rural high school. I did well on standardized tests, but was far from a perfect score. I did plenty of extracurriculars, but didn’t achieve any sort of national recognition for them.
Merit is a floating signifier, something that can point to whatever combination of attributes is convenient at a given moment. GPA and test scores, although deeply flawed, can provide some objective benchmark of achievement, although merit scholarships typically take a more holistic view of students, considering their extracurricular activities, leadership positions and volunteer experience. It’s been widely researched that affluent students score higher on standardized tests. What’s more difficult to articulate is the relationship between essays, extracurriculars and wealth. Researchers at Stanford University found that the content and quality of applicants’ essays had a stronger correlation with household income than SAT scores.
Although this connection is subtle, once you see it, it’s hard not to notice it. The kinds of flashy extracurriculars, moving personal essays or prestigious national awards that put students on the track to merit scholarships are all a function of access: who goes to a school that can offer those opportunities, who can afford to travel to national competitions, who can take a leadership position because they don’t need to work, who has adults in their life that can help them with their essays (or worse, who can hire an admissions consultant). Does a student who works an after-school job really have any less merit than a student who volunteers at a local nonprofit? Or have the circumstances of their lives constrained by what merit looks like for each of them? When merit is all about access, these scholarships inadvertently reward students who are already affluent and already very likely to attend a good college.
When the circumstances of someone’s life have already placed them on an upward trajectory, it’s easy to view their success as solely the product of their own hard work and determination rather than something that was structurally enabled. This isn’t to say that wealthy students don’t work hard or are always undeserving of merit. But it is to say that not everyone has an equal ability to display merit, or at least not in a way that’s legible to admissions officers.
I think the real reason I don’t really profile as a full-ride recipient is because of my socioeconomic background. My dad works in a factory, my mother is a former social worker-turned-teacher. I grew up in a solidly working-class existence in rural Michigan. These are, generally speaking, not the conditions that produce “merit.”
As a condition of my financial award, I had to attend a “Stamps Recruitment Weekend” for prospective students during my senior year of high school. On a rainy day toward the end of my spring break, my mother made the five-hour drive south towards Ann Arbor and dropped me off to spend three days with the other applicants who had been awarded the Stamps Scholarship. I immediately knew I was out of place. My roommate for that weekend, who turned down Michigan’s full ride to attend Duke University, had attended an elite preparatory school and started her own nonprofit in high school. Another prospective scholar somewhat intentionally let it slip they had received full-rides from three other top public universities (they ended up turning all those offers down to go to Stanford). The other recipients of my scholarship were all genuinely kind, interesting and intelligent people, but many of them came with carefully curated resumes that I could never dream of mimicking.
For me, this scholarship meant the difference between self-financing my education and being able to graduate debt-free. For others, it seemed inconsequential, just another marker of their belonging at elite institutions. I don’t think these people were undeserving, but it was clear this financial award would serve very different purposes in our lives.
The two-tier system that existed within my scholarship class did not seem like the marker of a functioning financial aid system. Something was deeply wrong with the way the University was defining “merit.”
There’s no hard data on how many students at the University are scholarship recipients. LSA, the largest academic unit on campus, awards approximately 40 four-year scholarships to incoming freshmen. The College of Engineering has nearly 300 scholarships available, although some of these take financial need into consideration. Whatever the exact number is, it’s clear that recipients are few and far between.
The ontological problems with merit scholarships are clear, and only a small portion of the students receive them. So why does the University continue to award them? At the institutional level, scholarships aren’t about “merit” either. Instead, they’re a recruitment tool. One study noted that not only do “recipients enroll at a higher yield in general, but scholarships were also a likely factor in an increased yield for the most academically talented students.” In other words, these are tools to attract high-achieving students who would otherwise attend more prestigious institutions. It’s unclear how many scholarship recipients went to the University solely because they were awarded merit aid, but 3.6% of students in the class of 2025 reported being admitted to Ivy League+ schools (Ivy League, Stanford, MIT), but decided not to attend. It’s not unreasonable to assume that a meaningful portion of these students were scholarship recipients.
Some institutions have done away with scholarships altogether. The most notable are elite institutions such as Brown, Harvard and Yale. At these schools, all aid is awarded based on financial need. But other universities, such as Franklin & Marshall College, a liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., have also abolished merit scholarships in favor of a completely need-based model. Three years after this policy was put into place, Franklin & Marshall tripled the number of low-income and working-class students on campus.
It’s easy to claim that the University of Michigan couldn’t abolish merit scholarships because it needs to compete with elite institutions for students, but the reality is only a small percentage of students at the University are even admitted into those schools, while other non-Ivy+ colleges have successfully moved towards a completely need-based model.
Money isn’t the issue either. As of fall 2021, the University had a $17 billion endowment. If the University wanted to, it could move towards a need-based model today. The continued use of merit scholarships as an enrollment tool, in my view, suggests that the University is more interested in trying (and failing) to attract high-achieving students in order to make itself seem more prestigious or selective, than actually meeting the needs of low-income students who are already here.
After Spring Break, I decided to view my admissions file. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, students have the “right to inspect, review, and challenge the content of their own education records.” This means that any current student can view their admissions file by sending an email to the University’s FERPA office. I didn’t have a strong urge to see what the admissions officers had written — in fact, the only reason I did was because many of my friends had decided to view their records around the same time. I quite literally copied and pasted the email my roommate had written and changed the relevant details.
Admissions records are notably sparse. Nearly 90,000 applications were submitted for entry into the University of Michigan starting in fall 2022, making it nearly impossible to give each one more than a few minutes of time. Students are rated on a scale of 1-15, with 1 being the best, by two reviewers, who also leave written comments about the overall quality of the applicant’s academic profile, essays and extracurricular activities. Commentators on the University of Michigan subreddit have described the experience of viewing this file as “a waste of time” and “an extreme letdown.” I wasn’t expecting anything more than the standard treatment — a few shallow remarks and an impersonal rating — but my friends insisted there had to be something more.
“They gave you scholarship money,” my roommate said. “Admissions must’ve liked you, I’m sure there’s something interesting there.”
In fact, the admissions office didn’t seem to like me any more than anyone else. Students are not allowed to take photos of their files, but I wrote down detailed notes. Most of the comments on my file revolved around my background.
“Outstanding rigor and grades from below average rural HS in underrep. north MI county,” one reviewer wrote. “Very strong test scores in context of rural HS,” the other noted.
My favorite detail, however, was my numeric rating. Both admissions officers gave me a two. My current roommate, who received no merit awards, had also gotten twos across the board. An acquaintance freshman year had viewed her file and I distinctly remember her going out of her way to tell me she was rated a one by both reviewers. She didn’t have a scholarship either.
The entire experience seemed to underscore the arbitrariness inherent to merit awards. I knew better than to look for answers or some sense of closure from this experience, but a part of me still believed there would be something in my admissions file to make it all make sense. I always had a nagging feeling that I had gotten my scholarship by mistake. How had I ended up in a program made for high schoolers who went to elite high schools, who won national awards and who were vying for admission into Ivy League schools? I wouldn’t say that my educational or familial background was completely incompatible with higher education’s narrow definition of merit—but it certainly wasn’t aligned with it. I was looking for some throwaway comment that would tell me why I had ended up in this position, even if that comment was something as unsatisfying as admitting they needed more socioeconomic diversity, or a student from Northern Michigan to round out their class of scholars.
But there were no answers in my admissions file. There were no indications that the University saw any particular promise in me. It was random, more or less the result of chance. Even among students who are able to perform merit in some legible way, the final decision about who gets money and who doesn’t feels utterly arbitrary.
Viewing my admissions file was a deeply unsatisfying experience, but oddly freeing, too. All throughout college I had been looking for some way to create a coherent narrative of my experience. The problems with merit I’ve discussed are issues that I’ve been thinking about for a long time and that I’ve been trying to reconcile along with my gratitude for my own scholarships. But increasingly, I feel like there is nothing to reconcile. How do you marry a structural critique of merit with complete and utter randomness?
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. My merit scholarship sent me to college and changed the trajectory of my life. But wouldn’t I have been better off in a system where schools would just meet my financial needs? When universities continue to offer merit scholarships, they make their priorities clear. The pot of institutional aid is only so big, and — in the eyes of the University of Michigan — it’s better to give that money to (mostly wealthy) students in the form of merit scholarships than to award grants or need-based scholarships to students in need. In this scenario, universities have two choices: They can increase the size of the pot by allocating more money to institutional aid, or they can move towards a purely need-based model. The University has chosen to do neither.
Students have long called for more funding for financial aid and for the University to make it easier to navigate the process of getting aid. But it’s time to introduce a new idea into the conversation. The University is allocating financial resources in the wrong places — merit scholarships are not, in general, going to students who actually need them. It’s time to abolish merit scholarships.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.