Boston Merit-based state scholarships tend to benefit college students who are least likely to need them, and in some cases are widening enrollment gaps between white and minority students, according to a study of programs in four states.
The analysis of programs in Georgia, Florida, New Mexico and Michigan suggests states should weigh whether such programs meet their intended goals, said Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, which published the study.
The programs are intended to encourage in-state college enrollment among top students across economic and social lines and to reward students who excel academically.
"The whole thing sounds so good, and nobody's going beneath the surface and looking at the aggregate effects of putting billions of dollars of aid into students who don't need it," Orfield said.
Since Georgia instituted its Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally program, or HOPE, in 1993, 12 states have created merit-based scholarship programs, which award financial aid based on academic performance rather than financial need.
In the 2000-2001 academic year, the 12 programs gave out a combined $863 million in tuition aid to college students, almost three times the $308 million given out by the same states in need-based programs.
Georgia's lottery-funded HOPE program pays full tuition and fees at public schools in the state, or up to $3,000 at private in-state colleges. The program gave out about $300 million in 2000-2001.
Because of HOPE, enrollment for youth from families with incomes above $50,000 rose 11.4 percent, but the program has had no effect on enrollment of youth from poorer families.
HOPE appears to have benefited white students more than black. Compared with nearby states, college attendance among white students in Georgia rose 12.4 percent from 1993 to 1997 but remained virtually unchanged for black students.
Glen Newsome, executive director of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, defended the program, saying HOPE has increased the number of high-achieving students attending college.
Michigan's 2-year-old Merit Award Scholarship Program, funded with money from the federal tobacco settlement, gives one-time grants of $2,500 to students who stay in-state, and $1,000 to students who go out of state or to private colleges.
Researchers found that Michigan's awards are not going to students who would most benefit: minorities who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. Blacks, who make up about 14 percent of the state's student population, received about 3.5 percent of the money awarded in 1999.
T.J. Bucholz, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Department, called the findings "disturbing," and said there is already movement away from the existing system.
Florida's lottery-funded Bright Futures program, which started in 1997, gives aid based on grade-point average and standardized test scores.
According to the study, Florida's program also rewarded whites disproportionately. Whites made up 61 percent of students in 1998 but were 77 percent of aid recipients, while blacks made up almost 28 percent of students and got about 8 percent of aid.
A spokesman for Florida's Education Board did not return a call Monday seeking comment.
New Mexico's 5-year-old program rewards students for their performance in their first college semester. Students in two- or four-year colleges who have a full course load and maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average receive a full scholarship to state-funded institutions the next semester.
But, according to the Harvard study, the program has largely benefited white and higher-income families.
Jessica Encinias, assistant to the New Mexico Higher Education Commission's executive director, said no one was available to comment Monday.
The study recommends expanding definitions of merit, putting income caps on the aid and allowing students to receive both merit- and need-based aid.
Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, was not surprised by the report's findings.
"We've taken the groups that are already succeeding and saying we're going to divert our financial help to those folks," he said.