University of Texas to End Its Participation in the National Merit Scholarship Program: Financial Aid Will Be Redirected Toward Low-Income Students

In a stunning but welcome announcement, the University of Texas at Austin has ended its participation in the National Merit Scholarship Program. The university will redirect funds used for merit scholarships into need-based programs.

When announcing the decision, the university issued a statement that read, “The financial constraints brought about by the economy on families and the university require the redirection of resources to ensure accessibility to the university by all qualified students, regardless of ability to pay.”

For many years, JBHE has been critical of the scholarship program because student scores on the PSAT standardized tests are used as the preliminary qualifier for consideration. Very few black students score at the highest levels on the PSAT and therefore are not eligible for National Merit Scholarships. In an attempt to correct for the inherent racial inequality, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation established a separate program for African-American students. These National Achievement Scholarships come with a built-in stigmatization, “You are smart . . . for a Negro.”

The decision by the University of Texas is particularly noteworthy considering the fact that in 2008 the university enrolled 281 National Merit Scholars. This total was second only to Harvard University.

The University of Texas reports that only one fourth of its National Merit Scholars applied for any type of federal financial aid. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that much of the money used for National Merit Scholarships goes to students who don’t need help in paying for college.

The University of Texas decision may prompt other educational institutions that participate in this program to reconsider their financial aid policies.