Last week Jacob Schack took Carleton’s support of the National Merit Scholarship to task as part of an ongoing series of articles about Carleton’s budget priorities. He argues that the scholarship is a waste of money, and that it does nothing to improve the quality of students who come here because it unfairly favors privileged students who can afford expensive prep courses. I am a low-income student and the National Merit Scholarship was a major component of making Carleton affordable for me. I never took any prep courses. I scored well on the PSAT because I was the sort of person who should be going to Carleton.
But all of that is beside the point. The National Merit Scholarship isn’t about the money. $2000 is nice, but what matters much more to me is the fact that I can call myself a National Merit Scholar. It matters that this is the scholarship my dad almost won – he was a finalist – and that I got to follow in his footsteps and go even farther. I grew up being told that if I did well in my classes I’d get scholarships for that and I would get to go to college. National Merit was the fulfillment of that promise.Must all scholarships be need-based to be valid? If, as Schack argues, National Merit is unfairly awarded to kids who’ve taken prep courses instead of smart kids, then that is a problem with the award selection process, not with the philosophy of merit scholarships. There are literally thousands of merit-based scholarships out there that reward high school students for talents that ought to be rewarded. They’re for students who have done outstanding service to their communities, or are a whiz at playing piano or building robots, or, yes, even those who happen to be really good at answering those dumb “Is the quantity in Column A or Column B greater?” multiple-choice questions.
It is true that funding the National Merit Scholarship isn’t cost-effective. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter. Carleton participates in all sorts of projects that lose money, because there’s more to it than the money. Take the wind turbine. If that thing ever ultimately pays for itself, it’s going to take ages. Carleton is never going to make much money by selling electricity back to the grid, but it’s making a statement that it’s committed to finding a way to cleaner energy. By funding the National Merit Scholarship, Carleton is participating in a tradition that has been around since 1955. I am a National Merit Scholar, and that’s a part of my identity you can’t take away regardless of the big check.
-Margaret Taylor is a third-year student