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UF to slash merit scholar inducements

The university says an expensive recruiting campaign is no longer needed to attract bright students.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published July 12, 2006


Convinced they no longer need generous financial incentives to lure the nation's brightest high school graduates, University of Florida officials will dramatically cut scholarships for national merit scholars.

Incoming freshmen already promised national merit packages will "get what they were told," provost Janie Fouke said Tuesday.

But starting this fall, in-state merit scholars who apply to the university will be eligible for a four-year scholarship of just $5,000. Out-of-state residents will get $17,000 plus an out-of-state tuition waiver.

That's a 77 percent decrease for in-state residents, who were getting four-year packages of $22,000; and a decrease of 55 percent for out-of-state students, who got $38,000 plus the tuition waiver. UF also will reduce student research stipends from $2,000 to $1,000.

"We're giving less money because we think the incentive is not as necessary as it was years ago," Fouke said. "The quality of the whole class has just climbed, and if you bring a really strong group of young people, other strong young people want to come, too."

The scholarship change represents a significant shift for the state's largest university, given how aggressive UF administrators have been in recruiting merit scholars.

For two decades, they used the large scholarships and UF's rising academic reputation to lure students away from schools such as Yale and Stanford.

With a price tag of $8-million to $10-million a year, the tactic proved costly but effective, Fouke said.

In fall 2004, UF's freshman class had 259 merit scholars, more than any other public university in the country. Among all universities, only Harvard had more: 312 merit scholars.

"Our recruiting efforts have been a masterful success," Fouke said. "Our freshman class is one of the strongest of any public university anywhere."

Last fall, according to the National Merit Scholarship Corp.'s annual report, UF had 230 freshman merit scholars. The University of South Florida had 26 scholars, FSU had 10; the University of Central Florida had 19.

Students become merit scholars based on how they score in 11th grade on the PSAT, an SAT pre-test that measures math, reading and writing skills. The honor also is based on high school grades, the rigor of courses taken and subsequent performance on the SAT.

Universities nationwide have long courted the scholars, despite debates about whether colleges should base so much on one-time, high-stakes tests like the PSAT and SAT.

USF offers in-state national merit scholars $10,000 a year plus a laptop computer, priority housing and a scholarship for study abroad, said admissions director Bob Spatig. Out of state residents get all of their tuition and room and board covered, plus the other perks.

Spatig said UF's scholarship reduction "could open the door for these students to consider other options in the state. It would be nice to see USF pick up some of those students."

Florida State University each year offers a total of 25 scholarships, worth $6,000 a year for in-state residents. So far, 23 incoming freshmen have accepted the scholarships, said Hege Ferguson, assistant director in the office of admissions.

"Four or five years ago we offered an unlimited number of scholarships, but it broke the bank," Ferguson said. "So we decided to limit this."

UF could end up paying as little as $2-million with the new scholarship levels, depending on future merit scholar enrollment, Fouke said.

For Florida residents enrolled in state universities, the national merit money comes in addition to Bright Futures, the state scholarship program that covers public university tuition for Florida residents who meet the SAT and grade point average requirements.

Fouke stressed that she made the changes only after looking at the GPAs and SAT scores of last year's national merit scholars and comparing them to the next top 10 percent of UF's freshman class.

"The groups of students are just as strong," Fouke said. "The idea was to raise the threshold for incoming freshmen, and we've done that. When you reach your goal, it's time to set a new goal."

Still, Fouke is already hearing "negative feedback" from unhappy parents.

"They were expecting bigger stipends."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 06:34:03]


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