Why Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts Education Plan Backfired

His scholarship program sounded logical enough, but it’s failing.

A graduating student wears a stuffed monkey on his head during Harvard University's commencement ceremonies in 2008, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A 2012 study found that Massachusetts high-school students were likely to use the Adams Scholarship to attend a state school with fewer resources than private schools they might have gone to otherwise.

Photo by Robert Spencer/Getty Images.

Ask Mitt Romney to name his signature education initiative as governor of Massachusetts and he’ll likely answer that it was the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program. The scholarship, established in 2004, covers tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for students who score in the top 25 percent of their district on the state’s 10th-grade math and English standardized tests.  

“I got more hugs on Adams Scholarship day than I did at Christmas,” Romney said in a May speech about education. “And parents—more than once—told me that they had been worried they would not be able to afford college and that the scholarship would make a difference. Here in America, every child deserves a chance. It shouldn’t be reserved for the fortunate few.”

The cost of college is one of the major barriers for many poor students, so it seems logical that paying for their tuition would help more of them graduate from college. But research into the Adams Scholarship and the 12 others like it across the country suggests that these programs do little to improve college access because they typically go to students who already plan to attend college. If anything, these researchers say, the scholarships can widen existing income and racial gaps in college attendance.

A study released this summer by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found that Massachusetts students were likely to use the scholarship to attend a state school with fewer resources than private schools they might have gone to otherwise. The result? Students who use the scholarship actually take longer to graduate—and they are less likely to graduate at all.

“This is a very unusual example of a situation in which we make money available to students, and they actually end up worse off,” said report co-author Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.

Merit aid programs emerged in the early 1990s as a well-intentioned, politically popular attempt to help more people go to college. Even as state budgets have been slashed, the majority of these scholarships have survived.

They typically have three goals: to provide extra incentive for students to work hard in high school; to keep the best and brightest students in-state, thereby avoiding a state brain drain; and to improve college enrollment rates. And it’s not clear they’re succeeding at any of the three.

There’s little evidence that the promise of financial aid boosts high-school achievement, Goodman said. While some states have had success in keeping their highest-performing students in state for college, that doesn’t mean they stay after earning a degree.

And although there is some conflicting research on the topic, many of the studies that have been done on merit aid find that it does not have a large impact on college attendance, particularly for minority and low-income students.

Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education who has studied merit aid programs extensively, has found the money is more likely to flow to white or Asian students and those with a higher socioeconomic status.

Romney’s original proposal called for a scholarship program that would go to the top quartile of test takers statewide. After critics argued the plan would heavily favor middle- and high-income students, the scholarship was amended to be given out on a district-by-district basis. Even so, minority and low-income students have qualified at much lower rates than their peers.

The same is true in other states. In Michigan, for instance, 31 percent of all high-school seniors scored well enough on the state’s standardized exam to earn a merit scholarship, but just 7.1 percent of African-Americans met the threshold in 2000, prompting a lawsuit from civil rights groups. The scholarship was ultimately discontinued due to lack of funding in 2006.

“Most of the money goes to subsidize kids from upper-income, upper-middle-income [families] who would have been going to college anyway,” Heller said. “If the goal of states is to get more students to college, then merit scholarships are not very efficient.”

The main reason many of these programs fail to close access gaps, according to Goodman and Heller, is that the criteria used to determine scholarship eligibility—typically GPA and test scores—correlate with income.

Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program, one of the oldest and largest merit aid programs in the country, has doled out more than $6.6 billion to nearly 1.6 million students since 1993. To qualify, students must earn a 3.0 GPA in high school. If so, they get a free ride to an in-state public school. One study found, however, that 96 percent of students who used the HOPE scholarship were already planning to go to college.

At the same time, many of the students who meet the 3.0 high-school GPA criterion in Georgia are not prepared for college. About half of Georgia’s HOPE recipients lose their scholarships between freshman and sophomore year for failing to keep up the same GPA in college. (Most programs have a similar stipulation for scholarship renewal.) Only 30 percent keep the scholarship for all four years. Research has also found that HOPE students are more likely to withdraw from classes or take a lighter course load once in college.

And the Massachusetts scholarship isn’t as generous as it first sounds. Romney’s program covers tuition at $1,700 per year. But it does not cover fees, which can be several thousand dollars more in Massachusetts, or room and board. Goodman’s report found that students who earned the Adams Scholarship were likely to be swayed by the money despite the program’s relatively small impact on overall cost.

At Massachusetts’ Brockton High School, more than half of the 264 Adams Scholarship students eligible for the money in the class of 2012 decided to use it. Counselor Catherine Leger, noting that about 70 percent of her students are low-income, said that she promotes using the scholarship to help mitigate tuition costs.

But many students who decide to go to state schools, which often have limited funding, are turning down higher-quality options, Goodman found. The schools they end up attending have fewer resources, reflected in measures such as student-teacher ratios, and they have lower-quality advising, which means that students get less academic support and are more likely to be shut out of classes that become too full. “The student may not appreciate that those factors will affect their ability to complete degrees,” Goodman said.

So how should states help more students go to college? Goodman suggests spending funds that currently go to merit scholarships on improving state universities instead or creating new scholarship programs that factor in need as well as merit to provide a targeted incentive. The current programs were a well-intentioned idea, but it’s time to re-examine the data.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.