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Ilya Reznik entered the University of Utah in 2005 as an upper-division chemistry student on track to graduate in less than two years. But then the New Century scholar took a basic physics class, and later a philosophy class with acclaimed bioethicist Peggy Battin.
"I thought, 'Wow, I really enjoy this. I wish I took more classes like this,' " said Reznik, 22, an Olympus High School graduate now in his second year as a U. graduate student in science instrumentation.
Needless to say, Reznik didn't graduate in the two years the Legislature envisioned in 2000 when it authorized the New Century scholarship. It took him seven semesters, but he did achieve two bachelor's degrees, in chemistry and physics. Reznik's story turns out to be common among recipients of the New Century scholarship, Utah's 10-year-old program that covers 75 percent of college tuition for high schoolers who graduate with the equivalent of an associate's and a B average.
New Century scholars take, on average, more than seven and a half semesters to earn their bachelor's, versus nearly nine for a control group, preliminary findings of a study commissioned by the Board of Regents show. In short, the program does not appear to be accomplishing lawmakers' goal to save money by reducing high-achieving undergraduates' time in college.
"It would indicate we are saving one semester [per student] rather than four. I'm not blaming the students. The associate's degrees don't necessarily line up the credits they need to graduate in the fields they choose," said Dave Buhler, assistant higher education commissioner for public affairs.
And as Reznik's case illustrates, that might not be such a bad thing.
"If they take a little more time to graduate, but end up contributing to the state's economy, then we all gain," said John Francis, U. vice president for undergraduate studies. "A lot of students do double majors, looking ahead to a changing job market, and that's not a bad strategy."
A final version of the Regents' study requires data from Brigham Young University, a leading destination for New Century scholars, and is expected to be ready for the board's December meeting. The preliminary findings show that New Century scholars graduate with more credits than the control group, 143 vs. 134, indicating they are accomplishing more academically than their peers.
The Legislature plans to revisit the scholarship in January in the face of inadequate funding for the program. New Century enrollments have soared in recent years as the "early college" charter high schools graduate an increasing number of qualified students. With declining funding, higher education officials may be forced to trim future New Century awards.
One possible legislative fix includes restricting eligibility by moving up the deadline by which students must earn their associates. High school officials see such a move as a step in the wrong direction.
"The rush to get [an associate's degree] by graduation can be counterproductive," said Clark Baron, Utah County Academy of Sciences. This Orem charter school produces the most New Century scholars, accounting for one-tenth of this year's class of 575. Baron's preference is the Legislature fully fund New Century, thereby guaranteeing the $5,000 benefit to all eligible students.
"It's a great program. It's not perfect and there are shortcomings," Baron said. "When you try to meet requirements for both high school and college degrees, you end up with a general education associates degree."
Many New Century scholars are pursing demanding degrees that require that courses be taken sequentially. Many times such courses are not available to accommodate a two-year graduation schedule, Baron said.
Francis pointed out that Utah students tend to work their way through college, avoid debt and often marry early, all of which work against fast-tracking a bachelor's.
"If you really want them out in two years, you want them taking full loads. If you provide a full-ride scholarship they move very quickly through the system, but that's a very expensive scholarship to fund," he said.
Of course, some New Century scholars charge through college right on schedule.
UCAS's best-case was a student who graduated in 2007 and wrapped up his bachelor's in math and physics at Brigham Young University in time to depart on an LDS Church mission this year.
And J.R. Eck, a first-year New Century scholar at the U., plans to walk the stage come 2011 commencement with a chemistry major and physics minor.
But Reznik also was shooting for two years to a degree when he started college. Today, he says he might have done things differently, given the chance to do college again, perhaps even foregoing New Century altogether.
"You have to ease into college. Doing your third year first is like jumping into the deep end," Reznik said.
As an 18-year-old, first-year college student, Reznik felt socially isolated from the older students he studied alongside and wondered if he was missing out on some of the finer joys of college by rushing through.
For his chemistry degree, he was required to take lower-division physics. In addition to the laws of thermodynamics, he learned something important about himself in that class: He had a much greater affinity for physics than chemistry. So he added physics as a second major, piling another year to his undergraduate career.
Since 2000, 2,313 Utah students have been approved for the scholarship, which covers up to 75 percent of the first two years' tuition at a Utah college. The Legislature capped the benefit at $5,000 for this year's graduating class. It's intended to give high school students a financial incentive to get 60 credit hours before they enter college. The idea is to get high-achieving students through college in just two years, but a study commissioned by the Utah System of Higher Education indicates New Century scholars on average take nearly four years to earn their bachelor's.
Scholarship recipients must have earned an associate's degree or its equivalent by the September following their high school graduation with at least a 3.0 grade-point average. This year, all applicants, including returning college students, must submit their paperwork by Jan. 8.
The program's top three feeder schools are small "early college" charter schools associated with Utah colleges. Together Utah County Academy of Sciences (57), Success Academy (48) and Itineris Early College High School (41) accounted for about one-forth of this year's crop of 575 New Century scholars.
Where they go
Nearly half of New Century's 1,005 current enrollees go to either Brigham Young University (247) or the University of Utah (247). Utah State University has 190 and Utah Valley University has 126.