Most American university students will remember taking the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), during their junior year of high school.
The test is promoted as a way for students to get a taste of the SAT without the pressure of being hurt by a poor score. If a student does exceptionally well, he can be recognized as a National Merit Scholar and thus be eligible for certain college scholarships.
I remember one girl in my class who was recognized as a National Merit Scholar; she had studied for over a month for the test and was excited when she got her results. I did not receive the award, and deservedly so — I had studied for maybe an hour the night before the test and had low expectations. What was surprising was that I was recognized as a National Hispanic Scholar.
Unlike the National Merit Scholar recognition, which is open to anyone who takes the test, you have to be at least a quarter Hispanic to be eligible to be a National Hispanic Scholar. Although there are other requirements, like having a GPA of 3.5 or higher, it is a fundamentally racial award given to high-scoring Hispanics who take the PSAT. It is not just a piece of paper — many colleges offer modest scholarships to National Hispanic Scholars.
The reasoning behind these types of awards and scholarships for Hispanics is not outrageous. In general, Hispanic families tend not to encourage their children to go to college. After high school, children are expected to stay near home and help take care of their family.
Going to college for four years can be seen as pointlessly expensive and even selfish to poverty-stricken families. Awards that make it easier for Hispanic high-schoolers to go to college are seen as a way to combat this cultural tendency.
The problem is that there are many Hispanics in the U.S. who win these awards but, like myself, do not fall into this general trend. Both of my parents went to college and would probably laugh if I said I wanted to stay home to help take care of the family. I never needed a monetary incentive to go to college.
The reason I studied hard in school was because I grew up in a family where that was expected and encouraged. I may not have put that much work into the test, but by virtue of my family and education, I was already in a much better position than the Hispanics I described earlier.
Encouraging people to go to college is by no means a bad idea. Making an extra effort to encourage those who ordinarily would not go to college is also not a bad thing. No one was hurt by the fact that I received this award. Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy about accepting the award.
I don’t want to outright condemn something that has a good intention; more Hispanics ought to be going to college. What is perhaps questionable is the fact that an award aimed at helping poor Hispanics really ends up helping mainly those Hispanics, like myself, who grew up fairly advantaged, and thus not in need of such an award.