For high school students across Massachusetts, the path to college may have just gotten easier.
Since 2002, they have had to pass a standardized test to graduate. But in June, the state board of higher education added a carrot alongside that stick: a promise that the top 25 percent of test-takers will qualify for four years of free tuition at any state college or university.
The move was controversial, opening a rift between education officials and legislators and sparking a larger debate about which families should be the beneficiaries of taxpayer money. But it also suggests continuing momentum for merit scholarships in an era when tuition is a bank-account breaker for many families.
Such programs have spread to more than a dozen states since Georgia launched its HOPE program in 1993. The movement has widened in recent years despite arguments that the students who are rewarded typically come from more affluent families and communities.
"There's a strong argument for giving money to kids who are going to perform well over those who are not," says Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University. "But should lower- and middle-income taxpayers be subsidizing the children of upper-income professionals with $200,000 incomes? Why should the government be in the business of subsidizing people from those types of incomes at all?"
Several states award scholarships to top performers of standardized exams. In Georgia, the state awards free tuition to students with B averages or higher - a system many argue has led to grade inflation.
In Massachusetts, the state board of higher education recently voted 8-2 in favor of Gov. Mitt Romney's scholarship plan, overriding the state legislature's opposition.
Governor Romney touts the program, which is projected to cost taxpayers $34 million annually, as a way to lure more of the state's highest-scoring students, many of whom can afford private school tuition, into its higher education system - and as a way to encourage all students to score better on the exam.
To some legislators and educators, however, the plan would funnel money into the pockets of the very students who least need assistance.
According to a Boston Globe analysis of Department of Education data, the scholarship money will be distributed to far more students in high-income school districts than low-income ones. In the wealthy town of Weston, Mass., for instance, where the median family income is $181,000, nearly two-thirds of high school students would qualify for free tuition at a state school.
By contrast, 3 percent of students in blue-collar Lowell, Mass., score well enough to see the aid.
The plan also troubles the immigrant community. Noncitizens who score high enough to qualify for the aid wonder if they will be eligible for it, as Romney's recent budget characterizes those who are not yet American citizens as ineligible for in-state tuition, no matter how long they have lived in the state. He has yet to publicly declare whether noncitizens who score high enough will see any of the scholarship money.
"I have many friends who are not [citizens] but score in the top 25th percentile," says Cesar Diaz, who just graduated from East Boston High School and protested Romney's plan with several immigrant groups at the State House last week. "What happens to them?"
Shawn Feddeman, the governor's press secretary, defends the program as one that rewards deserving, hardworking students: "One of the goals of the scholarships is to draw our top-performing high school graduates to public colleges and universities. It raises the overall quality of those institutions."
Romney estimates that of the 17,000 Massachusetts students who would qualify for free state tuition, about 6,800 of them would take it - a number that could cost the state $50 million a year. Currently, the state awards about $95 million of aid a year based on need.
And yet even need-based scholarships are implicitly merit-based, says Barbara Beatty, who chairs the education department at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and has studied testing for years.
"Most of the elite private institutions are need-based, but then you have to be able to get in," she says. "So those scholarships are already going to the kids who are doing well enough to get in - because of their hard efforts, their good grades.... And those students had to overcome more obstacles, and those obstacles are real."
Dr. Beatty wonders whether children from low-income families have access to the tutorials that many well-off parents pay for to help students prepare for the state's test, known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.
But she says Romney is correct to assume that many students who would qualify for free state tuition and can afford an elite private school education would opt for the private school - which would save the state money (since the scholarship money wouldn't be collected by all who qualify) while still encouraging all students to study harder. "That reasoning is fair," she says.
Dr. Vedder, author of "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much," agrees. But the economist worries that, by offering full tuition to the students, the state is providing schools with an "open invitation" to hike tuition prices even higher.
"Let's say you're at [the University of Massachusetts in] Amherst and tuition is $2,000, and they're hesitant to raise it," he says. "That's a good school, so most of the kids will go to Amherst, and the school will just raise tuition, and the state will find itself putting up a lot more money for these scholarships, and it will have a negative effect on those who aren't top 25-ers."
But in the end, he says, states are right to direct education spending toward students and not schools. "When you give the money to schools, they'll use the money however they wish, and they're not too accountable to the students," he says. "Giving the money to the students leads to a greater attention to student needs because the kids control the money a little more."