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'No-Need' Scholarships to Private Schools Praised, Denounced at N.A.I.S. Assembly

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Anaheim, Calif--Traditionally, scholarship students at independent schools have been children from families who receive financial aid solely on the basis of need. The idea of providing scholarships for highly qualified students who do not need the money--so-called merit scholarships--is one that few independent schools have seriously considered, their spokesmen say.

But according to panelists at a meeting of independent-school officials here this month, the increasing competition--from both public and private schools--for highly qualified students is leading independent schools to take a closer look at the concept of "no-need scholarships."

Following the pattern established by col-leges and universities, more schools are considering the possibility of giving aid to students whose families would not qualify on the basis of need, or of providing awards above the amount required for tuition.

The panel, which included admissions directors and others, discussed the issue at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools (nais).

The issue, as one school official who attended the session noted, is essentially one of "ethics versus pragmatism."

Proponents argue that there are practical reasons--such as building a more diverse student body--for awarding merit scholarships.

Opponents say that to give limited dollars to students who could afford to pay what admissions directors call "full freight" could deprive other students of the chance to attend the school.

The nais, which opposes no-need scholarships, has not surveyed its member schools to find out how many are already providing them, according to Mary Kelley, head of the Cincinnati Country Day School's upper school and a member of the nais committee on admissions. Ms. Kelley, who chaired the panel, characterized the practice as "not common."

Another panelist, Michael Spence of Robert Parsons Associates, a Boston-based educational consulting firm, said in an interview that perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the total amount of financial aid offered by independent schools was awarded on the basis of merit.

That estimate, Mr. Spence said, includes both programs that advertise publicly for students who are exceptionally talented in a particular area and those that award funds beyond the needed amount at the discretion of school officials.

'Need-Based Policy'

The issue of whether schools should adhere solely to a "need-based" financial-aid policy, which provoked a lively--and unresolved--debate among those at the meeting, is neither simple nor clear, speakers agreed.

One important factor, Mr. Spence noted, is that the 897 independent schools that subscribe to the School Scholarship Service--supported by nais and administered by the Educational Testing Service--have signed an agreement stating that they will use need as the sole criterion in awarding aid. Because of that commitment, he noted, schools that do make merit awards may not do so in a very public fashion.

The scholarship service, Mr. Spence said, calculates the amount that the family can afford to pay. After that, however, the final amount of aid is decided by financial-aid officers, who have considerable room for what Mr. Spence characterized as "strategic interpretation." Hence, an official may give two students who have been deemed equally needy by the scholarship service different amounts of aid, he said.

Currently, Mr. Spence said, there is no formal sanction against schools subscribing to the need-analysis service that deviate from the need-based policy, although scholarship-service officials may remind a school of the agreement if another school complains.

The traditional policy notwithstanding, some panelists argued that there is also a place for merit scholarships at independent schools.

No-need scholarships, said Michael Cronk, the head of the Fenster School in Arizona, "can be advantageous to your schools and to the students who are enrolled in them." Merit scholarships, he said, enable schools "to go after the kind of students that fit the identity, to be able to make the school the kind of school you want it to be, so that for the other students, the school is what it says it is."

Moreover, Mr. Cronk said, the existence of merit scholarships can provide greater incentives for alumni to donate money. They might, for example, provide funds to establish a merit scholarship for students from a particular geographic region.

No-Need Scholarships

And a school that has no-need scholarships, Mr. Cronk pointed out, will have an easier time working with public-school counselors to find out about potential students. Public-school officials, several speakers noted, are not always particularly eager to encourage their best students to leave the school to attend private schools. However, if asked to help identify candidates for a scholarship, they may be more helpful.

And finally, Mr. Cronk said, there are those "talented kids whose families are very well off" whose parents simply refuse to pay for the private schools that their children would like to attend. "Where does that leave them?" Mr. Cronk asked. "On paper, they don't qualify."

Mr. Cronk suggested that schools that want to offer merit scholarships hold competitions to identify top students. Such competitions, he said, would also serve to enlarge the pool of applicants in general, and would pinpoint qualified students who do need financial aid.

Other panelists noted that equity would require that students now enrolled in the school be allowed to participate in the competition.

Despite his support for the concept, Mr. Cronk warned the independent-school officials against "going overboard." Most scholarships, he suggested, should be provided to students who need the money. He also advised against bringing in highly talented students if the school lacked an outstanding program to meet their needs.

Those panelists who opposed the scholarships, although not denying the validity of Mr. Cronk's arguments, responded that schools could accomplish the same goals while continuing to use need as the basic criterion for selecting students.

Mr. Spence, who spoke for the nais school-scholarship committee, argued that all of Mr. Cronk's suggestions could be carried out "using the baseline of need as the first step. Those good students can be found who fill your needs in the school as long as you adhere to the basis of family need." The admissions officers "may have to work a little harder in order to dig out those candidates," he said, and they may lose some students whose families refuse to pay.

But with merit scholarships, he said, would come significant competition among schools. "There are going to be a lot of kids and families who are actually looking to schools more as they would look to Bloomingdale's or K-Mart than focusing on the essence of what an educational experience should be," he said.

Mr. Spence contended that if schools expand their use of merit scholarships, "any system that is established to award financial aid on the basis of need is going to be thrown into total chaos."

Some school officials characterized the practice of holding competitions for merit scholarships as "gimmicky." Others said they could see themselves doing that, but added that they worried about the reaction of parents who paid full tuition for their children. And some pointed out that such awards could damage their students' sense of community by placing a "bought scholar" in their midst.

Noted Mr. Spence, in response to a question from an admissions official who was considering the use of merit awards: "I'm not sure there is a solution to it. You have to decide whether it's more important to have those kids or [to] keep the financial-aid policy consistent."

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