Wednesday, January 20, 2010

University of Texas at Austin Ends Sponsor of National Merit Scholars

Reprinted from The Chronicle, with additions from The Daily Texan
By Elyse Ashburn

Provided by Lauren Kahn, Educational Consultant, Lone Star Ed Consulting, LLC

Starting in the fall of 2010, the University of Texas at Austin will end its scholarship program for National Merit Scholars, instead devoting more money to need-based aid amid mounting budget pressures.

"When we looked at what was happening in the economy, we decided it was important to redirect resources to make sure that all students that are qualified to be admitted to the university are able to attend regardless of need," said Tom Melecki, director of student financial services.

The university will honor the National Merit Scholarships of current students, Mr. Melecki said, and it will continue to offer both universitywide and departmental merit-based scholarships for which scholars will be strongly considered.

Previously, the university had awarded most National Merit Scholars $13,000 over four years. In 2008, the university sponsored 213 of the 281 freshmen at Texas who were selected by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation competition. It enrolled more freshman scholars that year than any college other than Harvard University, according to data provided by the corporation.

Students enter the competition by taking the PSAT by their junior year, and must score above a certain cutoff, which varies by year and state. Of the 1.5 million students who compete, about 16,000 are selected as semifinalists based on their scores. From that group about 15,000 are selected as finalists based on academic performance and their SAT scores.

Recently, the National Association for College Admission Counseling criticized the program for using PSAT cutoff scores as the primary factor in selecting scholars. Admissions tests, the group argues, are not designed to serve as the primary screen for scholarship applicants, and should only be considered as one of many qualifications.

In a letter to NACAC, the College Board, which owns the PSAT and is a partner of the scholarship corporation, defended the selection process, saying that it is the fairest way to evaluate 1.5 million students a year and that the PSAT serves as an "access and equity tool" because it introduces many low-income students to the college-going process.

Mr. Melecki said Texas' decision had nothing to do with how the scholarship program is run. Rather, it was one of the easiest merit-based aid programs to end because most such scholarships at the university are endowed by private donors. The National Merit Scholarships were primarily paid for by the university, but about 20 percent of their cost was covered by an endowment.

The Daily Texan provided this perspective and praised the administration's decision to end National Merit Finalist large financial awards.
Those who argue that canceling this program signals that the current administration is not dedicated to attracting top students are wrong. The University still has hundreds of merit-based scholarship programs to attract top students that test well. The Austin-American Statesmen notes that the University will award more than $60 million in aid that is wholly or largely merit-based, even after ending this program. The choice to end the National Merit Scholarship program should be applauded. It brings UT closer to competing with top universities for truly top students and further from the pool of mid-tier colleges desperate to attract Merit scholars.
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