We have a guest column in today’s Arizona Daily Wildcat (the print version complete with our Mark Twain-esque mascot). A hyperlinked and slightly edited version appears below.
According to The Arizona Republic, approximately 8 percent of undergraduate students at the state’s public university system this fall will not pay a dime in tuition during their first year, courtesy of the Regents’ High Honors Endorsement, or AIMS scholarship.
The scholarship provides a full tuition waiver to in-state students who meet the following requirements: A student must have received all A’s and B’s in his or her high school classes, and the student must also score an “exceeds” on all three sections of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test.
As The Arizona Republic’s Anne Ryman reported, “The scholarship costs the universities about $44 million a year out of a total $280 million in need and merit scholarships given out. Money to pay for the scholarships comes from a percentage of tuition revenue the universities receive.” Increasing tuition coupled with larger entering classes has resulted in the AIMS scholarship program using more than 15 percent of the scholarship budget for a program that benefits fewer than 10 percent of students.
Accordingly, the Academic Affairs Committee of the Arizona Board of Regents, aware of the fiscal unsustainablility (to use the contemporary academic parlance) of the scholarship, considered overhauling or even eliminating the program in early July. Although they ended up tabling the measure for future consideration, the thought was a good and necessary one: The endorsement is a costly, impractical program that makes attending college less affordable and less accessible for students for whom accessibility and affordability are relevant concerns.
For example, the recent spate of seemingly unavoidable tuition increases can be partly attributed to the increasing number of students who don’t pay any tuition at all. No matter what scholarship recipients personally pay for college, the cost of educating each student remains the same.
Though statewide statistics on socioeconomic status and diversity with regards to scores on the AIMS test are notably scarce, it is a standardized test like any other, with all the associated problems. According to the official test data released by the Arizona Department of Education[pdf], students who belong to underrepresented minorities perform significantly worse on the test than other students. If Arizona is serious about improving accessibility, the solution clearly does not lie in maintaining the AIMS scholarship in its current iteration.
Furthermore, if the AIMS scholarship existed to provide help for students who needed it, there would be a provision requiring proof of financial need. There is not. If the scholarship was about rewarding academic merit, it would use a more difficult test and have stricter standards. It does not. Instead, it muddles through both of these goals, rewarding only high-grade mediocrity at an extremely high cost, both for the education system as a whole and for those students who must pay for the resultant increases in tuition rates. In recent years the test has become a less reliable measure of academic merit (like many state-mandates tests of this kind), a fact reflected by the downward trend in the required passing grade. Unwilling to confront and rectify systematic flaws in the public education system, department of education administrators have instead opted to cloak the problems with artificially inflated passage rates.
Despite the clear defects of the scholarship and the AIMS test itself, the Arizona Students Association, a student fee-funded lobbying group based in Phoenix, has advocated for the program to remain unchanged. ASA Chair Elma Delic said in The Arizona Republic article, “Financial aid should never, ever be used as a cost-saving measure.” This is certainly an admirably idealistic stance, but ASA’s blind insistence on the sanctity of the AIMS scholarship ignores the larger issues of quality and equity. While everyone agrees that scholarship funds should be used to help those who are genuinely deserving of financial aid and attract the best and brightest to Arizona’s public universities, it is also clear that the AIMS scholarship, while certainly does help some students, does not do nearly enough to justify the costs levied on the student body at large.