The Scholarship Game

A new and overlooked report shows which schools get the big bucks.



Let's have a cheer for the administrators of Memphis City Schools, who produced a comprehensive and revealing new report on scholarships and high school graduates, and for school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., who publicly recognized it.

And let's have a jeer for the local media, which ignored the report and remained focused on football, food programs, and the ongoing grand jury investigation.

The 2007 Annual Scholarship Report came out last week, the same week, coincidentally, that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said she was considering using federal authority to make states report graduation rates the same way.

"I think we need some truth in advertising," Spellings told the Associated Press in a story that was not picked up locally.

Here are the highlights of the MCS graduation and scholarships report:

• There were a total of 5,886 graduates in 2007. Only 1,568 of them, or 27 percent, got scholarship offers. A college scholarship is not a gimme. The total value of scholarships offered was $97 million, but only $49 million of that was accepted.

• It is quite possible that somewhere in Memphis there is a "$1 million student." A single four-year athletic or academic scholarship to an elite college can be worth $150,000 or more. Given the zest with which some students and parents fill out college applications, it's conceivable that somebody got into six or eight elite schools and was showered with scholarships worth $1 million.

• The MCS motto "Every Child. College Bound. Every Day." is simply not realistic. For one thing, only 70 percent or so of students graduate, depending on how the graduation rate is being calculated these days. And the percentage of graduates who go to college, although not reported in the annual report, is obviously less than 100 percent.

• The scholarship data, which is compiled by school guidance counselors, may be flawed by different counting standards or miscounting. For example, Cordova High School reported that 60 percent of its 373 grads were offered scholarships. No other school achieved more than 35 percent.

• The education benefits of the Tennessee Lottery are overhyped and overrated. Lottery scholarships were accepted by 862 students, or 14 percent of the Memphis graduating class. In other words, only one out of seven Memphis grads qualified for a scholarship and stayed in Tennessee, while six out of seven did not, despite the inducement of $3,000 to $4,000 in financial aid per year. And it is reasonable to assume that some if not most of those 862 students would have gone to Tennessee colleges anyway.

• Athletic scholarships are false hope for most students. A total of 117 students accepted athletic scholarships, worth $4.4 million. That compares to 131 students who got scholarships for leadership or service, worth $4.2 million. Fairley and Melrose got the most athletic scholarship offers, even though they are medium-size schools.

• The magnet effect is as strong as ever, and it applies to athletics and academics. White Station High School is unbeaten in football this year. Six years ago, the team struggled to win one game. But good coaches and good players attract more good players. And there are as many ways for a football star to get into the school of his choice as there are to get into the end zone. White Station had more graduates (441) than these six schools combined: Manassas (38), Oakhaven (102), Southside (102), Treadwell (74), Westside (51), and Westwood (62).

• Having said that, scholarship offers are pretty widely dispersed: Central ($7.8 million to 113 students out of 342 graduates); Cordova ($10 million to 224 students out of 373 graduates); Craigmont ($5.6 million to 86 students out of 277 graduates); Fairley ($4 million to 47 students out of 179 graduates); Hamilton ($3.6 million to 30 students out of 214 graduates); Overton ($3.2 million to 79 students out of 284 graduates); Ridgeway ($13.2 million to 115 students out of 325 graduates); Whitehaven ($6.9 million to 82 students out of 369 graduates); White Station ($19.3 million to 160 students out of 441 graduates); and Wooddale ($3.3 million to 46 students out of 300 graduates).

Other schools such as East ($466,000 to 37 students out of 192 graduates) and Kirby ($795,000 to 18 students out of 220 graduates) are not getting as much attention. Are optional schools hurting them? Are counselors not selling them? Are college recruiters ignoring them? The next thing MCS should do is find out.

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