Merit vs. Need-Based Financial Aid; Notes on Constructive Conversation and Emotional Investment

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend over Thanksgiving Break. I haven’t been able to write out my thoughts until now because I’ve been slammed with term papers and end-of-the-semester assignments. Now that it’s Winter Break I finally have a bit of free time on my hands 🙂

Firstly, I want to share our discussion on merit-based scholarships vs. need-based financial aid. At the beginning of our conversation, I was of the position that both were permissible. My friend, on the other hand, believed that if there was money to be given in the form of scholarships or financial aid, it ought to be given on the basis of need, not merit. This implies that schools giving money to students on the basis of merit when it could instead be given on the basis of need is impermissible. This seemed too strong a conclusion to me – accessible higher education should absolutely be made a priority, but intuitively it also seems permissible that excellence be rewarded. I would have been willing to go so far as to say that need should take priority over merit, but no further. During the course of our conversation, however, my friend brought up some considerations which have made me much more sympathetic to his position.

The main thrust of his argument centered around the idea that our society is set up in a way such that those who excel are the ones who already have the means to afford college: their parents have the resources to send them to good schools, pay for extracurricular activities, hire tutors, and afford prep classes/books. Thus, assuming that colleges and universities have a finite amount of money that goes towards covering students’ tuition and living expenses, the money should go to someone who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford college rather than someone who can, even if the latter person is someone who excels or is particularly talented. (Those who count on their talents or good grades to be their “ticket” to a college education they could not otherwise afford would still be covered under need-based aid.)

As I said, I am much more sympathetic to my friend’s conclusion now than I had been prior to this conversation. I can see why, given the way our current society is set up, we may need to do away with merit-based scholarships altogether and focus completely on need-based financial aid. While extreme, I believe the current state of higher education in the United States is flawed enough to justify it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all.

I’m still working to reconcile this with my intuitions about it being permissible for excellence to be rewarded, but perhaps the answer is as simple as saying that it’s prima facie permissible bar extreme circumstances, and we are currently in extreme circumstances. I don’t know yet.

The second thing I wanted to talk about was our conversation itself. There were a few things I really appreciated that I wanted to highlight:

First is the mere fact that the conversation happened in the first place. Speaking from experience, lots of people tend to shy away from conversations in which their views are challenged. Oftentimes their attitude is a complacent “agree to disagree” or a defensive “everyone is entitled to their own opinions”, rather than viewing the situation as an opportunity to have their intuitions challenged and explore differing viewpoints.

Second is my concession towards the end of our conversation that my mind had changed, and that I was more convinced of my friend’s position and less convinced of mine. I don’t know why there is such a stigma against admitting you’re wrong or changing your mind. That’s how you grow, after all.

And last is my friend’s demeanor throughout our conversation. I have been using the terms “conversation” and “discussion” throughout this blog post, but honestly the label “argument” wouldn’t be completely wrong. The issue of university-awarded financial aid affects my friend personally, and he was quite angered at my suggestion that universities not funnel all of their potential resources to helping need-based students.

What is interesting to me is the general tendency of society to discount the input of those with emotional investment to the topic at hand – for example, citizens called for jury duty are asked whether they have any relevant personal attachment to the case in question; “angry feminists” are dismissed in discourse; and I have personally been told on multiple occasions that people will listen to me better if I present my message in a calmer/nicer manner. But why do we do this? Of course in certain situations it is understandable, but as a widespread general principle? We need to work on recognizing we are human. Having emotions does not negate our right to be taken seriously.

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