Merit cuts have not hurt UF's draw


Published: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 11:19 p.m.

The University of Florida doesn't have as many National Merit scholars to brag about anymore, but dramatically reducing awards for the popular scholarship program hasn't deterred the best and brightest from coming to UF, according to university officials.

UF cut funding for the merit-based program last year, deciding to steer that money toward aid for need-based scholarships and graduate student aid. Absent the lure of such hefty rewards, 89 fewer scholars arrived at UF in fall 2007. But the university, which has increasingly competitive admissions standards, still boasts a class of greater academic pedigree than it's ever had before, according to admissions officials.

The decline in rewards has reduced the number of merit scholars at UF from 257 to 168, dropping UF on the list of popular merit scholar schools from No. 2 in 2006 to No. 12 for the 2007-2008 school year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

"I don't think that matters," UF Provost Janie Fouke said of the falling number of scholars, "because I think our prestige comes from the accomplishments of the faculty and the accomplishments of the students. And we have just as strong a student body after changing these financial packages as we did before we changed the financial packages."

The average grade point average of UF students exceeded a 4.0 last year, and UF's class that entered school in fall 2007 will have even higher credentials, according to officials. In short, UF lost National Merit scholars but other smart students came in their place.

The recruitment of National Merit Scholars, who are selected in part based on standardized test scores, has long been a key strategy employed by UF officials to bolster the freshman class' academic credentials. Paying large sums to the scholars, as UF did, was also part and parcel of shaping UF's image as a premiere institution. It wasn't uncommon for UF to boast about being one of the top destinations in the country for merit scholars, and in 2006 UF ranked just behind Harvard University for its total number of scholars.

But UF's rankings didn't tell the full story.

Unlike Harvard, as well as Duke University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, UF was paying merit scholars to come - and paying them a lot. For in-state residents at UF, the four-year scholarships were worth $22,000. Out-of-state residents were granted in-state tuition rates and were given $38,000.

Today, an in-state merit scholar only gets a $5,000 award - a 77 percent drop. Nonresidents still have their out-of-state tuition waived, but their scholarship is only $17,000 - a 55 percent cut.

UF officials couldn't confirm the total amount of money steered from the National Merit program to other scholarships, but the number is surely in the millions of dollars. The program's total cost would have been $5.7 million last year if only in-state students took the scholarships. If only in-state students took the scholarships this year, UF would have saved $4.8 million that it could apply to need-based aid and graduate student scholarships.

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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