Posted on May 11, 2022

How Popular Merit College Scholarships Have Perpetuated Racial Inequities

Naomi Harris, Washington Post, May 7, 2022

Need help paying for college? There’s good news, states across the South tell their students. You can earn it.

“The Bright Futures Scholarship Program offers opportunity and prosperity for all Florida families!” the Department of Education there tweeted this spring.

The message seems simple: Anyone can get most, or even all, of their tuition paid through the state’s signature program. Students just have to get the right grades and standardized test scores.

Bright Futures has loomed large, then, in the work of people like Sherry Paramore. As the president of Elevate Orlando, a nonprofit group, she helped Florida high school students get to college. Every September, Paramore would go over finances, walking through the types of aid. She’d work with tutors to help her students improve their grades. She connected them with mentors to plan their careers.

To Paramore, they’re exactly the kinds of students a state scholarship should help. They worked hard and got accepted to college. But when it came to Bright Futures, there was a mismatch.

Over three years, Paramore worked with nearly 200 students. Many were the first in their families to attend college; most were Black. But they struggled with the standardized tests. So in the end, how many qualified for a Bright Futures scholarship — the ticket Florida created to educational opportunity? Not a single one.

A generation ago, politicians across the South created scholarships like Bright Futures. Pivoting from the long-standing practice of giving out money for college based on family income, they turned to measures of academic achievement.

First in Georgia, then Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and elsewhere, lawmakers talked about keeping the “best and brightest” in state and doing more to help the middle class as the price of college escalated. Many of the programs were funded by state lotteries, so proponents could pitch the aid to taxpayers as if they were getting something for nothing.

Not surprisingly, the policies proved politically popular, especially among White, middle-class residents. They were, after all, some of the biggest beneficiaries — and still are.

State programs, of course, make up only one part of a student’s financial aid picture, with federal Pell Grants, college discounts and loans helping families pay. But many of these state merit programs are especially generous, often covering full tuition or close to it.

And 30 years later, large gaps remain in whom they benefit, especially by race. The rhetoric from these programs’ advocates has been that they expand opportunity equally, but the reality is that they have not.

In Louisiana, nearly three-quarters of recipients of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (known as TOPS) are White. Only about half of first-time entering freshmen in the state are.

In Georgia, Black and Native American students remain the least likely to receive the state’s merit scholarships, and Black students are especially underrepresented among those whose full tuition is covered.

And in Florida, where 17 percent of the population is Black, no more than 7 percent of Bright Futures recipients have been in any year since the program started.


Race was part of the conversation from the beginning.

When Zell Miller proposed the HOPE scholarship in Georgia, he touted it as “the most all-inclusive scholarship program to be found in any of the 50 states.” What the governor was saying was that it would also help White, middle-class voters — not just the people those key political constituents might associate with government aid.

HOPE would be “not only for those who are minorities or who come from lower-income families,” the Southern Democrat made a point to say in his 1992 State of the State speech, “but also those middle-income families who are devastated with the cost of education and training beyond high school.”

Miller’s speech was laced with rhetoric about how the scholarship would reward “deserving students.” The idea that this money would be earned was key to its popularity.

The same is true today. Last summer, Georgia’s current governor, Brian Kemp, a Republican, celebrated a milestone for HOPE: It had helped more than 2 million Georgians go to college, through $12.6 billion in awards. HOPE, Kemp said, was a “game-changer” for Georgia.


One of the biggest gaps Lee found in her research was in who received a full-tuition scholarship. Just over a decade ago, lawmakers, facing budget pressures, divided the HOPE scholarship into two.

The Zell Miller Scholarship covers full tuition for students with at least a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT, or 26 ACT, score. (HOPE has lower requirements and lower award amounts.)

Only 6 percent of the Zell Miller recipients are Black and 70 percent are White, Lee found. Among all in-state undergraduates, 29 percent are Black and 49 percent are White.