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Minorities lagging in tuition program

Fewer urban winners of Adams scholarships

A disproportionately small number of students offered free state college tuition next year under the new Adams scholarship program are minorities and poor, according to a state analysis of the 13,149 high school seniors whose high scores on the state MCAS exam made them eligible for awards.

And while the state Board of Higher Education intended the scholarships to reward the top quarter of MCAS scorers in each school district, most large urban districts produced far fewer winners. To be eligible, students had to achieve a minimum score on the test, in addition to being among the top 25 percent in their district. As a result, only 5 percent of seniors in Lawrence, 7 percent in Springfield, 13 percent each in Worcester and Lowell, and 18 percent of Boston seniors qualified for awards, according to the state Department of Education.

Those who accept the offer receive free tuition for four years at any public campus in the state -- worth $740 to $1,700 this year, which represents a fraction of the cost -- provided they maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.

Governor Mitt Romney, who first introduced the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program in his State of the State address almost a year ago, has touted it as a merit-based scholarship, meant to reward top students and motivate low performers. But the makeup of the winners confirmed the worst fears of critics of the program, who had predicted that few poor and minority students would qualify.

Just 3 percent of the winners are black and 2 percent Hispanic, while this year's senior class is 9 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic, according to the education department. Only 8 percent of scholarship winners qualify for the state's free lunch program for low-income students, compared with 19 percent of all seniors statewide.

''We're not saying the awards ought to match the population, but it's a problem when there are huge gaps between the population and the scholarship recipients," said Donald Heller, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University who forecast the breakdown of Adams award recipients in a report released in October. ''The particularly discouraging thing is that the Board of Higher Education and the governor's office knew about the gap [in MCAS scores] for minorities, and even knowing, they went ahead and used the MCAS" as the criteria for award. Heller argues that grades should also be considered.

State education officials vigorously defended the Adams guidelines yesterday, calling the scholarships an incentive program that will help improve MCAS scores statewide while giving well-prepared students a reason to stay in Massachusetts. Several leaders said they expect to see more poor and minority students qualify in the future, as more people learn about the scholarship and work to meet its requirements.

''It's impossible to pass judgment in the first year of an incentive program, because there's been no incentive until now, and you can't say if it's working," said Stephen Tocco, chairman of the state Board of Higher Education, which approved the scholarship program in October. ''I'm convinced it will make a difference."

The governor has made it a top priority to close the gap in MCAS scores between white students and minorities, said Shawn Feddeman, Romney's spokeswoman, ''and as the gap closes, we expect more minorities to qualify."

The new program will cost $8 million next year and as much as $32 million annually when four years of winners are enrolled, said Feddeman. She said the state already spends $95 million a year on need-based aid for low-income students.

To qualify for a scholarship, students must score at the advanced level on one section of the MCAS exam, score at the proficient level on the other section, and get a total score in the top 25 percent of test takers in their districts during their junior year.

At least 40 percent of students who qualified for scholarships are expected to accept, and enroll at state schools, according to the Board of Higher Education. Tuition makes up about one-quarter of the cost of attending the colleges, not including room and board. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the total cost this year including housing is $15,200. Tuition is about $1,700.

The evolution of the program began in January, when Romney proposed granting free tuition to the top 25 percent of MCAS scorers statewide. That plan was criticized for favoring students in wealthy suburban school districts, and was amended by the state board so awards would go to the top quarter in each district. As part of the compromise, Romney insisted on adding the requirement that winners have one advanced and one proficient score.

Critics charged that the bar was still set too high, and Heller, who has studied the results of merit aid programs nationwide, projected that under the new requirements, only 4 percent of black students and 4 percent of Hispanics would qualify. State officials, including higher education Chancellor Judith Gill, maintained that Heller's numbers were low; in fact, fewer qualified than Heller predicted.

Board of Higher Education member Kathleen Kelley said yesterday the outcome was disappointing but not surprising, and suggested the board should consider revising the guidelines when it reviews the program next year.

Through a spokesman, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said he was ''comfortable" with results released yesterday.

At Brockton High School yesterday, Romney met with 199 seniors who received the scholarship offer. Granted a brief reprieve from the school rule against cellphone use, students were allowed to call their parents from the auditorium, and Romney borrowed phones to chat with several mothers, according to aides. In Brockton, 22 percent of seniors qualified for awards, and winners are 60 percent white, 25 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic.

In Springfield, 68 percent of scholarship winners are white, 12 percent black, and 15 percent Hispanic, Superintendent Joseph Burke said. Among all Springfield students, 19 percent are white, 28 percent black, and 50 percent Hispanic, he said. ''It doesn't look like our school population," Burke said. ''I would hope we could get a more reasonable distribution in the future, and I think we will."

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

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