HENAGAN: Stronger incentives

The University should offer merit-based scholarships

Every admissions tour at the University includes a fumbling response to one question: “Does the University offer merit-based scholarships?” The short answer is yes, the Jefferson Scholarship, which covers all the costs of attendance, is the University’s flagship scholarship program. The real answer is no, the University does not offer any merit-based scholarships. An outside foundation started by University alumni funds the Jefferson Scholarship, and the actual University does not offer any merit-based scholarships to incoming undergraduates.

The Echols Scholars program, which is the equivalent of the “Honors Program” at every other state school, does not include any subsidization for the cost of attending the University. Dean Timko, head of the program, views the Echols Scholar designation as a tool to recruit students who are deciding between other peer institutions. He and others see bringing in students who would have gone to other (arguably) scholastically stronger institutions as the best way to academically enrich the undergraduate experience at the University. However, the Echols Scholars program will never be an effective recruiting tool for top students if merit-based funding does not become a part of the equation.

The actual amount of funding the program would provide is secondary to the sense of gratitude and self-worth students feel when someone invests in their personal education. The University should look at merit-based scholarships as a part of its investment portfolio. Students who are paid to come to the school feel a greater sense of duty to serve the place that believes in them and gives them opportunities which are otherwise unavailable. This strategy is the key to increased long-term participation in alumni donations. Merit scholarships have the potential to attract highly talented students and inspire a life-long trend of gratitude that results in future monetary rewards for the University.

Furthermore, anyone should be allowed to apply for a scholarship at this University. The Jefferson Scholarship only allows one to two students selected by their high schools to apply for the program. The sense of exclusivity that permeates many aspects of the University should not apply when it comes to scholastic funding. Students have the right to be recognized for the quality of their work. There are hundreds of high-capacity qualified students who are choosing other institutions because they do not see the value of being an Echols Scholar at the University.

If the University intends to remain competitive as a global institution, more than just one half of a percent of the student body needs to feel the sense of gratitude, duty and drive that comes with accepting a merit-based scholarship to this institution. Need-based financial aid will never have the same positive psychological effect as a merit scholarship.

The state of Virginia only supplies 5.8 percent of the University’s total budget; this percentage is equivalent to roughly $150 million. While attending the University as an in-state student is still roughly one third the cost of out-of-state attendance, $13,000 a semester still adds up over six to eight semesters of payments. The state of Virginia needs to start heavily subsidizing in-state honors students; otherwise the intensely competitive climate of college admissions will continue to steal Virginia students away to other parts of the country.

The state government needs to remember that the most important resource within its borders is the next generation of leaders. Making an investment in the education of the state’s best and brightest is the route to elevating not only the status of the University as a premier educational institution but also the state of Virginia as a source of America’s leaders.

Will Henagan is a Viewpoint writer.

Correction: an earlier version of this column said the state of Virginia supplies 5.8 percent of the University’s academic budget. It has been revised to say that state funding comprises 5.8 percent of the University’s total budget.

Published February 26, 2014 in Opinion

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