Last Wednesday, Michigan’s Republican-led House Appropriations Committee vocally opposed Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposal to reduce Michigan Merit Awards as part of her effort to balance the state budget. The committee seeks to maintain the scholarship’s current $2,500 value instead of reducing the award to $500 as Granholm suggests. While maintaining state funding for college students is desirable, the committee’s strategy for preserving the merit awards would channel money away from Medicaid – the government’s health insurance program for the poor – and therefore should not be approved.

Financial support for higher education is an extremely important element of the state budget. But with the state running such a large deficit, state government is required to make cuts in some areas. So, as difficult a task as prioritizing state funding may be, it must be undertaken. If the state must choose between funding merit scholarships and Medicaid, it is clear that the money should remain in Medicaid programs.

Students’ financial struggles would continue to be recognized under Granholm’s proposal. But, unlike the Appropriations Committee, her proposal also takes into consideration the well being of all of those who are disadvantaged, not just students.

Though scholarships are clearly beneficial to many, and generally deserve full support, the merit awards often undermine the state’s education mission. Schools that cater to standardized tests tend to neglect other important educational issues such as the arts. In many schools, MEAP -the standardized test upon which the merit awards are based – preparation currently takes up to 40 percent of class time, replacing creativity, critical thinking and valuable group work with test preparation. To make matters worse, the MEAP has been found racially biased. Granholm is right in suggesting that the state need not place such a strong emphasis on this arguably harmful and inaccurate measure of ability.

Moreover, considering the recent funding cuts for higher education and the resulting tuition hikes, the merit awards take on a more benign value than ever. The $2,000 differential that merit award students would receive under the committee’s plan would be mostly offset by the state’s higher education cuts and resulting tuition increase. If the state directed more funding toward higher education, all college students would benefit from the funding choice. All college students would benefit from a more stable tuition rate, regardless of how well their schools prepared them for the MEAP.

It would be foolish to claim that merit scholarships need not exist at all. Any extra aid that the state can offer college students is welcome, but not at the cost of further depleting Medicaid. If their are indeed ways in which the state can fund the merit awards without channeling funding away from Medicaid, those options should be explored. In the mean time, Granholm should stick to her guns.

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