The well-known Daniels Scholarship Program, which has helped hundreds of New Mexico students and thousands through the Rocky Mountain region attend college at almost no cost, is under fire for asking questions on an application form that some view as a test of patriotism and politics.
The Colorado-based Daniels Fund, which operates the scholarship, asked applicants questions that, among other things, gauged how proud they are to be American and how the American flag makes them feel. For some high school seniors in Santa Fe filling out stacks of applications in hopes of landing on a college campus next year, the form was unsettling.
“A lot of students I know were skeptical about how to answer these questions because they were very different from any other application. They wanted information on our social media accounts and our thoughts on capitalism versus socialism,” said Capital High School senior Paloma Sandoval, who is applying for a half-dozen scholarships this fall.
“I was like, I don’t see how this reflects me as a student and how I’m going to be successful in college,” she added.
The scholarship is open to high school seniors in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Last year, 24 of 218 recipients were from New Mexico, and since 2000, the fund has provided more than 4,000 “last-dollar” scholarships, which cover costs that remain after a student receives federal and state aid and institutional scholarships.
The fund is named after Bill Daniels, an innovator in the cable television industry who died a billionaire in 2000. Linda Childears, the fund’s president and CEO since 2005, said this year’s application was designed by the board of directors in order to find applicants aligned with Daniels’ worldview.
“A socialist would not have been somebody that Bill would have wanted to support with a scholarship,” Childears said. “If you think that the government should run everything and business should go to hell, that’s not what we’re looking for. If you hate capitalism, then this probably isn’t the scholarship for you.”
But former New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who is Daniels’ niece, said the fund’s politicization of the application is not a reflection of her uncle’s beliefs.
“I’ve always believed if you have a lot of money, you should give it away while you’re alive so somebody who doesn’t share your values doesn’t give it away for you after you’re gone,” Denish, a Democrat, said Wednesday. “Bill said go find diamonds in the rough, not go find kids who agree with me.”
The 91-question Daniels scholarship application begins by asking students for links to their social media accounts. A “Getting to Know You” section asks students how much they agree or disagree with a few dozen statements, including:
• Everyone should be able to go to college for free.
• “America the Beautiful” is the National Anthem.
• I don’t feel much of an attachment to the USA.
• The economic system in the United States is rigged.
That section also includes a multiple-choice question with a right-side-up American flag, an upside-down American flag, a burning American flag, a Canadian flag and a Mexican flag that asks: “Which image evokes the strongest positive emotion?”
“If we could go back, we would probably take out the flag question,” Childears said.
Essay questions asked students to write about the merits and drawbacks of capitalism and socialism, as well as, “Who do you believe is ultimately more responsible for making things better: individuals, businesses, nonprofits or government?”
Sandoval said the application’s methodology forced students to decide between being honest or giving the answers the Daniels Fund seemed to be looking for.
“Here at Capital, a lot of us are from low-income families, and we need these scholarships in order to attend an out-of-state school,” she said. “So we were confused because we want the scholarship, and obviously the right answer was the capitalistic view, but also shouldn’t we be honest about who we are?
“I felt like I had nothing to hide,” she continued. “I hope whoever is reading the applications is somebody with relevant perspective to people our age. I just said the truth about what I believe in.”
Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca brought the controversy around the application to light earlier this month when she called the questions twisted and xenophobic on social media.
“I used to be a proud Daniels Fund scholar, then I learned their politics and was then just grateful. Saw 2019 scholarship questions and now I’m appalled,” CdeBaca wrote on Twitter. “Filtering low-income teen applicants to make sure they are patriotic enough to believe being poor is their fault.”
A right-wing think tank took to the Denver Post’s editorial page to demand CdeBaca return her scholarship money, while the fund’s board of directors responded to her by saying the questions were in line with Bill Daniels’ values.
According to the fund’s website, Daniels left behind criteria to judge scholarship applicants based on character, leadership, commitment to community service, academic performance, personality and emotional maturity, but not perceived patriotism.
“He set up some college funds for my children, but he certainly didn’t ask them any of these questions. The fund has done a lot of amazing work, but this is a black eye,” said Denish, who said she was on the Daniels Fund board from 2000-10. “They have a lot of people on the board who are very, very conservative. Bill never asked these questions of anyone. I was at Bill’s bedside when he died. I knew him. His patriotic values were different than this.”
Childears said the Daniels Fund board of directors, which includes a former U.S. senator and several hedge fund managers as well as former New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Hanna Skandera, does lean conservative.
But Sandoval, who has applied to 10 colleges, said she remains confused by the messaging.
“Everyone could see the questions were leaning toward answers in favor of the capitalist point of view,” she said. “And I just couldn’t help but keep asking myself, ‘Aren’t scholarships like this and free college really socialist concepts anyway?’ ”