Participation in Utah's merit-based college aid program has more than quadrupled since it began, with more than one-third of the awards going to graduates of a single school district.
Meanwhile, fewer applicants are rejected for the Regents' Scholarship as high school students and counselors become more familiar with the 4-year-old program, according to a progress report presented Monday to lawmakers.
"More and more are eligible and receiving the award," said David Buhler, associate commissioner for higher education.
The scholarship gives $1,000 to graduates who complete a college-prep curriculum with at least a B average. The award must be used at a Utah school, including Brigham Young University and Westminster College.
This year's group of scholarship winners were high school freshman when the program was implemented in 2008. Back then, only 195 of 838 applicants qualified, while this year 998 of 1,611 claimed the award, costing taxpayers up to $1.7 million, not including administrative costs. Two-thirds achieved the $5,000 exemplary award, reserved for those who earn at least a 3.5 GPA and 26 on the ACT.
Meanwhile, participation in the older New Century Scholarship has declined by almost half since lawmakers began tightening requirements two years ago. The program, which approved 332 applications this year, rewards those who complete an associate degree before starting college.
The Regents program is too new to assess whether it is accomplishing the goal of improving readiness among high school graduates, but its growth is a promising sign, officials say. According to various measures, Utah has plenty of room for improvement. The University of Utah's six-year graduation rate is 58 percent, far below the average for state flagship universities, and lack of college readiness is seen as the principal culprit. And only 27 percent of Utah high schoolers who take the ACT earn scores indicative of college readiness across subject areas.
"We would like to see a much larger number who are proficient in all four [areas]," Buhler said. Officials say the program appears to benefit students even if they fail to qualify because it prompts them to raise their sights academically.
"We see people who are upping their game. They need to do something above and beyond high school graduation requirements to qualify," Buhler said. Meanwhile, districts that didn't offer courses sufficient to meet the program's requirements have increased those offerings so their graduates can qualify.
"Higher ed has the ability to affect what goes on in public ed," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, one of the Legislature's leading education reformers. "By hanging a carrot out there, that has moved public ed to offer courses they should have been offering all along."
Alpine School District in Utah County has garnered 40 percent of the awards given to date, but its share has slipped as other big districts, such as Canyons, Davis and Nebo, have begun to catch up. Despite its size, Granite accounted for only 41 awards this year, about one-third the number secured by Canyons graduates.
Officials believes some high schools and districts do a better job than others of advising college-bound students about how to secure the scholarship.
In the early days, confusion abounded over which courses qualified. But as the program has matured, the pathway is much more clear and the rejection rate has plummeted from 77 percent in 2008 to 30 percent.
The most common reasons for rejection are failure to complete qualifying courses or submit all required documentation. Applicants must apply by Feb. 1, and submit transcripts and proof of citizenship by July 1.
There were 200 applicants on track for winning the scholarship this year who did not send in their documentation, according to program administrator Melissa Miller Kincart. Those students might have bombed on key classes their senior year or decided to go out of state for college. Kincart is surveying them to learn why they did not follow through.
Officials stress that students must make sure they take the right classes to qualify. For example, science courses must be lab-based biology, chemistry and physics, and English classes must teach literature or composition to count. Drama and yearbook won't cut it.
"Those are fine things to do, but it has to actually be English," Buhler said. "We want every student who qualifies to get this award. We don't want people to be hung up."
What • The state provides up to $5,400 to high school graduates for use at a Utah college if they complete a rigorous curriculum with a good GPA and ACT scores. To qualify for the $1,000 base award, students must complete four years of English, three of lab-based science, 3½ of social science and two of foreign language with at least a B average. A 3.5 GPA and ACT score of 26 can get them the full award.
When • Feb. 1 is the deadline
How • For more information, visit www.higheredutah.org/scholarship_info