Prestigious Scholarships and Unfair Competition

No, this is not a post about scandals or outrageous behavior on the part of over-zealous or unethical promoters of prestigious scholarships, who sometimes surface in the intense competition to bring home major awards to campuses.

The unfair competition we detect has nothing to do with shady tactics; it is, rather, the heavy burden that public universities in the Northeast are forced to accept because of the overwhelming impact of the Ivies and elite liberal arts schools in the region. The presence of these academic powerhouses in the region led us to make a late change in the way we presented our data.

(Other parts of the country are similarly affected by the presence of elite private institutions or by the fact that some awards are given based on the state of residence of  the student rather than on the state in which their university is located.  A student with a residence in California who wins a Goldwater Scholarship while attending Harvard is listed as a California awardee.)

For example, the total number of Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships won by all 50 of the public universities we are reviewing over since the inception of both awards is 864. Now, this may seem like a high number, but consider this: the eight Ivy League universities plus MIT–a total of nine schools versus our 50–have garnered 1,609 Rhodes and Marshall awards. Throw in Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, and Wellesley, and the total rises to 1,845. Throw in West Point, and that’s another 120 awards, making the grand total 1,965 won by only 14 schools.

And they’re all within about 250 miles of nine of the schools among the 50 we are reviewing. The Universities of Binghamton, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Penn State, Rutgers, Stony Brook, SUNY Buffalo, and Vermont are the publics that have the greatest challenge when it comes to doing well in regional competitions for awards or when the Goldwater and Truman people look to some degree of state equity in making their decisions.

Although some programs may have, so to speak, said to hell with it, and decided it is a waste of resources to challenge the likes of Harvard, with 563 Rhodes and Marshall awards all by itself, others that may be trying as hard as they can still have a much tougher time than other public schools that do not have to deal with the Ivies, West Point, and the elite liberal arts institutions.

Delaware, Vermont, and Rutgers have done the best of all the public universities who operate near the famous private schools in winning the major postgraduate scholarships, while Penn State has the best overall record of awards, including Goldwater and Udall scholarships. One reason for this relative success is that the most intense pressure from the private elites hits Massachusetts and Connecticut the hardest.

So here is what we plan to do: We will now have an additional listing of the 50 programs, one that will show total scores without the prestigious awards points. This addition will also answer some critics who have, correctly, stressed that prestigious awards may or may not be earned by students in honors programs.

Now parents, prospective students, and honors staff will be able to have it both ways–with prestigious scholarships as part of the total, and without them, leaving only the honors-specific data as an indication of a program’s success.

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