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University of Texas Stops Sponsoring National Merit Scholarship

September 2, 2009

by Emily

The University of Texas has announced plans to withdraw as a sponsor of National Merit, a popular national scholarship program that students qualify for based on standardized test scores. In an effort to focus on providing need-based financial aid, the university will no longer offer scholarships specifically for National Merit Scholars. The University of Texas, which was second only to Harvard University in the number of National Merit Finalists it enrolled, offered qualifying students awards worth up to $13,000 over the course of four years.

Texas is not the first major university system to choose to cease participating in National Merit, a program that offers $2,500 scholarships to high school juniors who do well on the PSAT, with the potential for honorees to receive much larger scholarship awards from partner companies and universities. Other institutions, including the University of California system, have previously chosen to withdraw sponsorship of National Merit, while many other schools have chosen not to offer awards specifically for National Merit winners.

National Merit has previously drawn criticism for its strong emphasis on high PSAT scores (other application materials are considered in selecting finalists, but semifinalists are chosen solely based on test scores). Students from wealthier families who have access to the best high schools and a variety of test preparation resources typically do best on standardized tests, such as the PSAT, which results in scholarship awards like National Merit skewing towards affluent students who need less assistance paying for college.

A University of Texas official cited similar reasoning in the university's decision to stop awarding National Merit Scholarships, stating that only one fourth of students receiving the scholarships typically bothered to apply for federal student financial aid, indicating the vast majority had access to other means of covering their college costs. The students who are most likely to be hurt by the loss of this scholarship opportunity will likely be helped by the increase in need-based financial aid that the university is promising.

University officials stressed that applicants who would have been eligible for this award will still be able to compete for other academic scholarships, and the undergraduate students currently receiving this award will continue to do so for their full four years of eligibility. Still, this announcement is likely to upset some students and to fuel the fires of the ongoing debate over merit-based versus need-based financial aid in colleges and universities.


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