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Schools use merit scholarships to woo top students

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Print this page by Gary Robertson
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University of Richmond student Rebecca Funke
Photo by Jay Paul

When Rebecca Funke was considering where she would go to college, the University of Richmond offered her a full-tuition merit scholarship plus $3,000 to use any way she chose in enhancing her education. 

The scholarship played a big role in the Perrysburg, Ohio, student’s decision to attend UR, where tuition totals $48,090 this year.

“I knew at the end of the four years I wanted to be debt-free because I knew I wanted to continue onto grad school,” says Funke, now a UR senior.

“[But] getting the scholarship at Richmond was not only about the money — it was the fact that Richmond saw my worth and would continue to provide me unique opportunities throughout my college years that would assist me in my future life goals,” she says.

Every college and university wants the brightest students in their classrooms, and merit scholarships — based on ability rather than financial need — are powerful recruiting tools.

James Monks, associate dean for undergraduate programs at UR’s Robins School of Business, says college officials typically talk about the “peer effect” and “seeding a classroom” in discussing the importance of merit scholarships.

“The rationale and motivation most commonly articulated by college and universities is the belief that the quality of a student sitting next to someone has an impact on the education they get,” says Monks, who has written about the effects of merit scholarships.

Critics of merit scholarships, however, say they divert money and attention from need-based scholarships. They note that many students who qualify for merit scholarships tend to be from higher-income families who have other options.
Merit scholarships, depending on their size, pay for all or part of the recipients’ education.  The college price tag has long been a controversial issue, among parents and politicians. 

State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) reports that tuition and mandatory fees at the commonwealth’s 15 public four-year colleges rose an average of 6 percent, for the 2015-16 academic year, while room and board charges increased 2.9 percent.

These increases come at a time when state contributions to higher education continue to lag in relation to the rising cost of college at public colleges and universities.  Virginia students at the commonwealth’s public four-year schools now pay more than half the cost of their college education, compared with a state target of 33 percent.

Despite the debate, many colleges use merit or honor scholarships as they scour the country in search of elite students.

Jefferson Scholars
The University of Virginia offers no merit scholarships to its students, but the Charlottesville-based Jefferson Scholars Foundation does. A private group with an endowment that totaled $357 million last year, the foundation offers extensive merit scholarships, plus a lot of add-ons, to attract outstanding students to U.Va.  In 2015, the group’s 35th year, it has an operating budget of $14.1 million.

“We exist to serve the University of Virginia,” says James H. “Jimmy” Wright, the foundation’s president.

This year, the program invited 4,000 high schools — many of them chosen for their diverse enrollment — in 59 regions to nominate scholarship candidates from among their most outstanding students. Other candidates, including international students, are identified when they apply to U.Va.

Wright says the foundation tries to be as comprehensive as possible seeking out worthy recipients from every strata of life.

“Mr. Jefferson himself wrote about the fact that he thought talent was spread throughout all segments of society. He thought that talent was not just focused in the landed gentry,” Wright says.

This year’s entering class, the class of 2019, includes 35 Jefferson Scholars. There were about 300 students who made it through the last stages of the nomination process but did not get selected, along with hundreds of others who were winnowed out earlier.

But the foundation points out that, for every student who becomes a Jefferson Scholar, seven or eight of the candidates who weren’t chosen also enroll.

“All of them are highly motivated and are high achievers,” Wright says.

He says Jefferson Scholars have a history of leadership, mentoring and heavy involvement in all aspects of U.Va.’s academic and student life while performing at the highest levels academically.

For example, the Jefferson Scholar class of 2014 achieved a cumulative grade point average of 3.73 on a scale in which 4.0 is A-plus.

1693 Scholars
Other Virginia schools also are searching for elite students.

At the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, the 1693 Scholars Program — named for the year of the school’s founding — is the most prestigious. It pays for tuition (at the in-state level), fees, and room and board. (For out-of-state students paying higher tuition than Virginia residents, the program is essentially a partial scholarship.)

The scholarship offers students an opportunity to participate in special seminars, study for a semester at Oxford University and, under the guidance of a faculty mentorship team, design an innovative cross-disciplinary major and capstone research project.

All applicants for freshman admission are considered for the scholarship. During the review process, about 50 are selected as semifinalists based on their academic achievement, character, leadership, vision and commitment to service.
Semifinalists are asked to write an addition to their application. Ultimately about 20 students are selected as finalists before their number, too, is trimmed.

“The program has grown in the past three years with either six or seven students selected as recipients, and we anticipate adding more in the coming years,” says Timothy Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission.
Wolfe says the program has been funded through private support and an endowment.

Richmond Scholars
At the University of Richmond, the most prestigious academic awards are administered through the Richmond Scholars program.

Its scholarships, awarded to 45 incoming freshmen, range from full tuition to full tuition plus room and board. The full-tuition scholarship is currently valued at $181,000 over four years.

The scholarships include four different designations: Artist Scholars, Boatwright Scholars, Oldham Scholars and Science Scholars, with varying criteria in each group. (Rebecca Funke, for example, is a Science Scholar.) All applicants who apply by Dec. 1 are considered for the scholarships.

“We are looking for students who contribute to campus culture in exciting and tangible ways,” says Jennifer Cable, who directs the university’s vocal program as well as serving as director of the Richmond Scholars Program.

Cable says these scholars can elevate the learning of everyone around them by something as simple as asking a question, or providing an insight into a discussion through an original perspective.

She adds that the merit scholarship winners don’t take money away from other students, because the University of Richmond is one of the few colleges in America that offers need-blind admission and meets 100 percent of demonstrated need.

In other words, a prospective student’s ability to pay for college is not considered in the admission process.

Moreover, any admitted Virginia student whose total parental income is $60,000 or below qualifies for a financial aid package equal to full-time tuition, room and an unlimited meal plan, all without loans.

According to Cable, one of the key benefits of the Richmond Scholars has nothing to do with money.

“They each have a faculty mentor who works with them one-on-one for four years” in addition to an adviser from their major area of study, she says.

“The connection is amazing,” says Cable, who serves as a mentor.

Emphasis on affordability
At Washington and Lee University in Lexington, the focus has shifted away from merit scholarships — although the university still offers them — to a bigger emphasis on need-based financial aid.

“Our first obligation is to the capable student who can’t afford to come,” says W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio.  “We want to make Washington and Lee available to exceptionally qualified students regardless of their economic backgrounds. Our assumption is that we will find very able students across the spectrum.”

W&L recently completed a $500 million fundraising campaign that exceeded its goal by $42.5 million. The campaign included raising $160 million for need-based financial aid.

Ruscio says the highly regarded university is sensitive to concerns over affordability.  Under its policy, annual tuition will not increase more than the rate of inflation plus 1 percentage point. The tuition at the private school for 2015-16 is $45,460.

“The reason we’re hesitant to use your term ‘merit’ is that is creates an implication that those who are getting aid based on need are academically less strong,” Ruscio says. “Some of our very best students receive need-based financial aid.”

The most prestigious scholarship at Washington and Lee is the Johnson Scholarship, awarded to about 10 percent of the entering class.

Winners of the scholarship, drawn from the most highly qualified applicants, receive at least tuition, room and board.  Students with even more financial need receive additional assistance.

In 2007, W&L graduate Rupert Johnson Jr., who is vice chairman of the board of Franklin Resources Inc., gave the school $100 million to establish a merit-based financial aid and curriculum enrichment program.

Besides having many or all of their college expenses paid for, Johnson Scholars also receive $7,000 to support summer experiences — such as internships, volunteer programs or research projects — while at the university.

Growing public-school trend
Even though merit scholarships continue to be controversial, their use has been expanding at public colleges around the country.

A study released this year by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-base, nonpartisan think tank, found that merit aid at U.S. four-year public colleges has increased markedly. The study was based on the use of non-need-based aid at 424 public four-year colleges and universities.

In 1995-96, students who were receiving merit aid totaled 8 percent. By 2007-2008, it had risen to 18 percent.

By contrast, during the same period, the share of students receiving need-based aid had risen only from 13 percent to 16 percent.

The study also found that public colleges that provide substantial amounts of merit aid to students tend to enroll more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition than in-state students.

Monks at the University of Richmond says that money matters when it comes to recruiting the very best students. “It takes a meaningful amount of money to make a meaningful yield,” he says.

Funke, the UR senior, says the university went the extra mile, flying her “on their own dime” to Richmond so that she could be certain the school was the right fit.

The relationship has been fruitful  for the student and the school.

In April, Funke, a double major in mathematics and computer science, won a Goldwater Scholarship, the country’s premier undergraduate scholarship in mathematics, science and engineering.

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