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The honors college at West Virginia University (WVU) has seen an influx of high-achieving West Virginia students since 2001, when the PROMISE Scholarship was implemented. The PROMISE Scholarship is a merit-based financial aid award for West Virginia residents. If a student qualifies by achieving a certain GPA and ACT/SAT score, he or she receives a scholarship that covers the full cost of tuition at any state college or university in West Virginia. West Virginia University has benefited greatly from the PROMISE Scholarship. About half of all PROMISE Scholars attend West Virginia University (Higher Education Policy Commission, 2007), and many are part of the honors college. Honors college administrators at WVU were interested in evaluating how the PROMISE Scholarship might have changed the college’s demographics, specifically with regard to socioeconomic diversity.
Statewide merit-based scholarship programs have proliferated since the 1990s. Though researchers have hotly contested them, the development of these programs has been steady, and existing programs continue to grow (Henry, 1998 and Heller, 2002). Some claim that the broad-based merit-aid programs have been contrary to the original goals of the 1965 Higher Education Act, which sought to expand access to college through need-based financial aid (Dynarski, 2002; Heller, 2002; Lumina, 2006). Similarly, critics have suggested the inherently disparate impact of broad-based merit-aid programs: students from middle- and upper-income families who are naturally predisposed to college participation are far more likely to benefit from scholarships like the PROMISE.