University of Arkansas Shifts Focus to Need-Based Financial Aid

According to the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs, in 2005, 73 percent of all financial aid for college students given out by state governments nationwide was distributed on the basis of need rather than merit. Yet in the state of Arkansas in 2005 only 19.5 percent of financial aid for college students was based on need. In the mid-1990s, Arkansas made a conscious attempt to stop the “brain drain” from the state by offering financial incentives for the best and brightest students in Arkansas high schools to stay close to home and attend college within the state.

From 1998 to 2005 a capital campaign raised over $1 billion for the University of Arkansas. Some of this money was used to increase financial aid. But the bulk of the funds were allocated to merit-based scholarships. The increases in merit-based scholarships did have the desired effect. The average ACT scores of incoming freshmen rose from 23.9 in 1997 to 25.4 in 2005. The mean grade point average of entering students increased from 3.39 in 1997 to 3.58 in 2005. But since the merit awards were based largely on a student’s score on the American College Testing Program’s ACT college admissions test, very few black students qualified for the merit-based awards.

The emphasis on merit-based aid has made it difficult for black and low-income families to afford the cost of college in Arkansas. More than half of all graduates of the University of Arkansas are in debt, with the average debt load of nearly $20,000. In a state where blacks are nearly 16 percent of the total population, African Americans make up only 5 percent of the student body at the flagship campus of the University of Arkansas.

University of Arkansas chancellor John B. White said recently, “The harsh reality is that many students, qualified to attend and graduate from the University of Arkansas, cannot afford to do so.” He has pledged to refocus the university’s financial aid programs toward more need-based programs. The university has created 150 new need-based scholarships for the coming year. In addition, it is launching a $30 million capital campaign with the proceeds earmarked for need-based financial aid.