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Saturday
May302015

In search of new models, Part II: College scholarships

A U.S. college degree has to be paid for. By someone. The price is the price, and the university will get its money one way or another. Scholarship monies are real dollars, not just an abstract cost reduction, but they rarely go directly to the student. Rather, they are usually applied toward the student’s account and resemble more of a discount for whoever’s paying. For the purposes of this series on "broken models," I’d say the interpretation of a scholarship “discount” is where the broken models exist.

 

Hypothetical conversation A:

“Billy is going to HappyDays University, where he has always wanted to go. We couldn’t be prouder!”

“What kind of scholarship did he get?”

“None.”

“Then why is he going there?”

“Because he wants to.”

 

Hypothetical conversation B:

“Suzie is going to HotShot University. They gave her a good scholarship.” [Variation: “They gave her a better scholarship than DownTheRoad College, where she really wanted to go.”]

 

Conversation B is probably the most common. Conversation A is rather unlikely, but that would be a very interesting conversation to overhear, with two different models being pursued in it – one of sending a student where he wants to go, and the other of wanting the juicy details of how much the price has been discounted. In either case, a conversation about college always moves to scholarship money very quickly. If you ask me, that is a non sequitur. For whatever reasons, our society is conditioned to treat college as something horribly expensive that has to be paid for with outside assistance, rather than as a place to nurture a young person’s passions and self-discovery, no matter the cost. At the same time, the worth of the student appears to be tied up, however subliminally or subconsciously, in how much discount in tuition s/he is receiving/winning/being offered to attend there. This model is so ingrained that even the super-rich routinely apply for financial aid.

Whom does scholarship money serve? With it, the student feels valuable for any number of reasons, the parents enjoy the discount for any number of reasons, and the university has landed a big fish in its bucket of students. Win-win-win? Only if all three parties are pursuing the same model in their thinking. When those models don’t match up, the games and the bidding wars begin.

Let’s pause here and acknowledge those students who put themselves through college. Those stories are real, but they are usually celebrated as sensational, not “normal.” “Normal” usually involves the glory of landing a big scholarship, but anyone who figures out how to self-pay for college has already discovered broken models and come up with new models of their own. They don’t need to read anything I have to say about it!

So, Suzie and her parents apply at two colleges. The school they prefer doesn’t offer as much as the other, so the Suziefolk ask for more. Then the other school counters, the game is on, and higher education takes another step toward becoming a commodity straight off the shelf. Meanwhile, Suzie feels more and more valuable all the time, the parents feel more and more affirmed for their hard work in raising her, and one of the schools is about to forfeit the game, whether by being outbid or by coming to its senses and dropping out of the game. Once all the cards are on the table, Suziefolks all across the land appear to make their decision based on dollar amount, rather than on percentage of costs covered. Ten thousand dollars will go a lot farther at the mid-sized state institution than it will up an ivy-covered wall. But watching that money roll in is spellbinding to so many, and they will choose the more expensive school with its larger dollar amount of scholarship, even though the prize represents a much smaller fraction of the costs of attending there vs. the other place. And at some point during the next four years, the winning school may wonder if Suzie was worth it. But as I said in the second sentence of this paragraph, Suzie already has a favorite picked out. But she's willing to let it lose the game based on the broken model of the bottom line.

Lest I sound idealistic in suggesting that money ain’t everything, I must acknowledge the broken-but-realistic model that college is indeed horribly expensive, and it’s getting worse. The amount of money being funneled into state universities from public sources is higher than ever, but when it’s divided up student-by-student, it’s pitifully low. Mommy and Daddy: be prepared -- you knew this day might be coming when you got pregnant. The college fund should be started when the engagement ring materializes. [Better yet, the college fund should be started in lieu of the engagement ring. Another broken model, but I digress.] Another model to examine is the one that says college should be automatic after high school. I'll deal with that one in a couple more posts.

Will the university award monies to the student who demonstrates the stronger past or to the student who demonstrates the stronger future? Will that money be used to give the professors the privilege of teaching the “best” student ever, or will it be used to help the future U.S. President get his chance at the table? And to what end is all this money offered? Some state schools are having to use scholarship dollars to appease state legislatures by keeping numbers up in some programs (another broken model). Or the schools of music are trying to keep large ensembles fully staffed (another one) or weaker studios populated (yep).

Many schools are credited with graduating only the finest organists. But I have to point out here with all due respect that many of those schools accept only the finest organists. There are some schools one does not attend to learn how to play the organ – you already have to play well to be admitted. Then there are others that will teach anyone, just to keep the program going. Then there are the middle-ground folk (like me) who will teach anyone with the passion to play, the passion to learn to play even better, a thorough command of written and spoken English, and the ability not to fall off the bench at the audition. In short, I teach people how to play, how to practice, and how to foster their passion.

In some perfect worlds, Billy would attend tuition-free. But in a true utopia, Billy would attend where he can pursue his passions at his highest performance level, money or not. I’d say the passion-nurturing model, not the richest model, is the one we ought to be seeking. That would be the ideal, even though we’re nowhere close to attaining it. We haggle over price at flea markets, car dealerships, home buying contracts, and wedding organist consultations. And now over higher education, I’m sorry to say. What’s wrong with just going where you want to go? Asking for the scholarship is fine, but if you have your place picked out, then go. And stop playing games.

When I was applying for grad school, I had a choice. Was I going to go where I was a small fish in a big pond but where I would be exposed to a very important boot-camp style of teaching and technical attention? Or was I going to go where I could be a medium-sized fish in a big pond and where the faculty all but asked at my audition, “Where have you been all our lives?” I chose the boot camp; I knew I needed that more than I needed more stroking. Best decision I ever made. But the irony is that I probably would have been more famous, had I gone to the other place. Money never entered into the conversation until it was time. We figure out ways to pay for what’s important, and I did. But I also got some generous scholarship. Somehow.

So about the only new model I can offer here is a change of thought, idealistic though it may seem. While I'd be a fool not to acknowledge the bonus of getting a scholarship, a choice of college is about what’s available there, not how much discount you receive to discover it. It’s about following passions. It’s about earning a seat at the table of self-discovery, not at the mythical table of guaranteed success.

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