Utah's two popular merit-based financial aid programs will head into the next academic year fully funded, ensuring hundreds of college-ready high school students will earn $1,000 or more to support them at a state institution. But there are no guarantees for the future if the Regents scholarship continues its meteoric rise in popularity.
Officials predict more than 2,000 students will qualify for Regents and New Century scholarships this fall, costing taxpayers about $4.3 million for the 2011-12 academic year.
That's money well spent, says Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg and other officials, who have lobbied lawmakers in recent years to ensure adequate revenue to support the promised incentives.
Participation in the Regents scholarship program has climbed steeply since its inception in 2008, while students qualifying for New Century scholarships, which requires them to earn an associate degree by high school graduation, dipped this year, thanks to tough new requirements.
The growth in the Regents program is gratifying for the lawmaker who sponsored the enabling legislation and for Rich Kendell, who first championed the idea as Sederburg's predecessor.
"It's doing exactly what it should, signaling to young people all over the state that taking rigorous courses means something," Kendell said. "It not only results in a scholarship, but really prepares them for college."
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, hopes someday the Regents scholarship will replace New Century. A recent study showed that New Century scholars often take nearly four years to graduate, suggesting the program is not accomplishing its goal of speeding students to their bachelor's degrees.
"I like the fact that [the exemplary Regent is] tougher to get than the New Century. It is focused on gearing kids for college. This is a way to reach the kids who are in the middle," said Hillyard.
New Century entered the legislative session in better financial shape because of a shot of one-time money last year, while lawmakers agreed to increase ongoing Regents funding by $880,000. But New Century is not likely to grow, while participation in the Regents program is expected to balloon as more students figure out how generous it is.
This year, 564 students qualified for New Century scholarships, down from a peak of 622 the year before.
Sederburg's office received 1,610 applications for Regents scholarships for the coming year by the Feb. 1 deadline, a 30 percent increase.
Officials expect 427 are eligible for the base award and 828 for the exemplary award, for a near doubling of qualifying students. These numbers represent a success rate of 78 percent, up from 57 percent this year, a sure indication that the program's requirements are better understood by the students and their high school counselors.
This jump in participation is good news because research shows that students who complete a Regents-like curriculum have 90 percent college completion rates, according to Cathy Hansen, president of the Utah School Counselors Association.
"Not only do they get the money, but they get assurance that the money they spend on college is well spent," said Hansen, a counselor at Salt Lake City's Academy of Math, Engineering and Science.
About 34 percent of Regents scholarships awarded in 2010 went to Brigham Young University students, slightly more than the University of Utah and Utah State University combined.
The LDS Church-owned school's oversized contingent of Regents scholars is even more noteworthy, considering that only one-third of its freshman class even comes from Utah.
As the state's most selective, yet affordable university, BYU attracts Utah students who are most likely to have completed the scholarship's requirements.
But as interest in the scholarship grows, its cost to taxpayers could reach several million dollars a year.
"That would be a good problem to have," noted Dave Buhler, associate commissioner of higher education for public affairs. "We hope it grows. The funding is contingent on legislative appropriations. There are no guarantees. Right now the Legislature is committed to funding it."
This year's applicants were high school freshmen when the program was unveiled and it has gone through much fine tuning since, mostly to make the award tougher to earn. There are numerous ways students can become ineligible.
A single B-minus in the wrong class, courses taken out of order, or forgetting to include a birth certificate in the application can cost a student dearly.
"It's not only a B average, it's taking all the right classes," Buhler said. Regent Exemplary award and New Century recipients have to keep up their performance if they want to be funded for the two full years.
"You have to re-apply. It wouldn't make sense for the state to give you a scholarship for two years and you get C's in college," Buhler said.
What's new with Utah scholarships
Applications for Regents scholarships are soaring, and a greater share of applicants are becoming eligible for aid under the program's college-prep curriculum requirements. The scholarship comes with a $1,000 base award for college freshmen who graduate from high school with a B average, plus a $400 match for contributions made to a Utah college savings plan. To qualify, students must complete four years of English, four years of math, three years of lab-based science, 3.5 years of social science and two years of the same foreign language.
Those winning an exemplary Regents award, by graduating with 3.5 GPA, will now earn a flat $5,000, rather than 70 percent of tuition as in the past. To qualify, students can earn no grade lower than a B in a core course.
New Century scholarships, also worth up to $5,000, are awarded to those who earn an associate degree by the time they graduate from high school while maintaining 3.5 GPA.
Recipients get the $5,000, whether through Regents or New Century, spread over four semesters and only while maintaining a B average for a full load of coursework. They must re-apply for the grant every semester.
Officials caution that future awards will be determined year by year, subject to the available funding.