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Merit scholarships can line pockets of full-ride scholars

If you win one merit-based scholarship, there is a good chance you will win another.

Merit-based scholarships are established by private donors without tapping into University revenues. Since selection criteria for merit-based awards often are similar, a strong candidate for one is often a strong candidate for many.

These scholarships are "based on a variety of criteria - I think that many scholarships look for the same thing," fourth-year Jefferson Scholar Andrea Plummer said.

Although students are awarded merit-based scholarships legitimately, scholarship winners can be awarded more money than is necessary to cover the full costs of tuition and fees at the University. Jefferson Scholars sometimes find themselves in this position because their program covers all their expenses - including food, books, rent and a summer in Europe. This gives some Jefferson Scholars who win additional merit-based scholarships an opportunity to graduate with more money in the bank than when they started studying at the University.

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    "It is an issue," said Sarah Curtis-Fawley, a 1999 College graduate and Jefferson Scholar. "I'm guilty of it."

    Third-year Jefferson Scholar Steven Shepard said the issue has come up before.

    "None of the people in my class are particularly eager to talk about it," he said.

    "It does happen," Plummer admitted. "I'm going to come out with extra money" from merit-based scholarships. She added that she will use the money for medical school.

    Some Jefferson Scholars said they also are offered National Merit Scholarships before they even enter college. And while at the University, they can pick up various other merit scholarships, all of which increase their bank accounts.

    Though it is not against the rules, the racking up scholarship money is something some students strive to avoid.

    "I've made conscious decisions not to apply" for some scholarships, third-year Jefferson Scholar Katie Dirks said. Although she did not apply, she also was awarded a scholarship only offered to the Echols program.

    Second-year Jefferson Scholar Amanda Griffin said it was a personal choice not to pursue other merit scholarships.

    "I personally am not big on applying for other scholarships - I don't know, I think it's really a personal evaluation," Griffin said.

    Opportunities to win more money

    A number of merit-based scholarships exist at the University. These performance-based awards can be limited to specific groups of students - such as government majors or Echols Scholars or students from a particular state - or they can be open to all University students.

    Not all merit scholarships are free from restrictions without regard to previous awards. The Grey-Carrington award, which covers the fourth year of University expenses, is one such honor. When Jefferson Scholars win, the money is put in escrow for recipients to use only if they pursue post-graduate study at the University, said Ernie Ern, board of trustees member and senior vice president.

    A large category of unrestricted awards is the Dean's Scholarships, however, which include five kinds of scholarships available to second and third-year College students. The average GPA for a Dean's Scholarship is a 3.8, officials said, and this year they are worth between $2,000 and $5,000.

    Six of this year's 18 Dean's Scholarship winners were Jefferson Scholars, as were five of last year's 15 winners. Yet Jefferson Scholars only make up about 0.8 percent of the University as a whole.

    Jefferson Scholars often win these awards because they are involved heavily in academic and service activities, Curtis-Fawley said.

    Plummer said many Jefferson Scholars also often serve in leadership positions. For instance, both the Honor chairman and the Student Council president-elect are Jefferson Scholars.

    Merit Scholarships at the University

    Scholarships are set up for a number of reasons. Donors may choose to establish merit-based or financial need-oriented awards, depending on their goals.

    One purpose for merit-based awards is to recognize the efforts and achievement of applicants.

    "If someone is talented enough to win" then they should, said Jefferson Scholars Director James H. Wright. "To be otherwise is not a merit-based scholarship."

    Using funds in ways other than to relieve financial need is how donors intended the system to work, Wright said.

    "It wouldn't sit well with alumni if [the Jefferson Scholars program] turned into a need-based scholarship," he said. "Anybody should be allowed to compete."

    Charles S. Roberts, a major donor for the University, set up a need-based scholarship for African-American women at the University, but said he fully supports merit scholarships as well.

    Merit-based awards "are an important part of every educational system," Roberts said. "They are not rewarding people just because they are smart," but are rewarding "active people."

    Another consideration is that many Jefferson Scholars are attracted to the University by the program and should not be penalized by being denied other scholarships.

    "If the University is seeking to recognize excellence, I would think that the Jefferson Scholars, like any student, would avail themselves of the opportunity," Wright said.

    Scholars go after scholarships as a pursuit of excellence, fourth-year Jefferson Scholar Rebecca Hogan said.

    Scholars "are pretty outstanding people," she said. "They are goal-oriented people, and they don't feel like [getting the Jefferson Scholarship] is enough to stop" working hard.

    Joe Bilby, student council president-elect and third-year Jefferson Scholar, said he does not object to merit scholarships. He said in addition to purely merit-based awards, donors could establish scholarships that combine elements of merit with financial aid.

    "Some kind of hybrid" scholarships might be established by donors, Bilby said.

    He said the University had a good financial aid program to address financial needs.

    "I generally think that U.Va. does a pretty good job," he added.

    Some merit scholarships, in fact, do have financial-need components. A reason some donors establish such awards is to allow students to pursue a field of study without worrying about money.

    Most of the Dean's Scholarships are merit based, but the Helping Hand Scholarship has a financial-need component, though it has been given to Jefferson Scholars in the past.

    Officials said they were not aware the Helping Hand Scholarship had that caveat and were looking into changing the applicant process to incorporate the financial aid office.

    Officials handling fellowships had requested merit-based scholarships from the development office and were not aware of the restrictions in the endowment language, officials said.

    Since fellowship officers do not deal with financial aid concerns, they must get their information from the Office of Financial Aid, College Director of Communication Kennedy Kipps said.

    "We assumed that everything we had was merit based," Asst. Fellowship officer Nicole Hurd said. She said they intend "to fix that right away."

    The road to national scholarships

    One reason Jefferson Scholars apply for other scholarships is to build their resumes and gain experience for applying for national merit scholarships.

    Shepard said Dean's Scholarships are among the best honors to receive at the University.

    "Money is a reason to apply for some people," he said. "Still, I would have applied even if there was no money."

    Other Jefferson Scholars expressed similar sentiments.

    "If it was distinctly monetary, I would not apply," third-year Jefferson Scholar Kevin Whelan said.

    When Jefferson Scholars apply for merit-based awards, they do it for the recognition, fourth-year Jefferson Scholar Kerry Cavanaugh said.

    "I don't think anyone sees it as profit-making," Cavanaugh said.

    In addition, scholars learn about national scholarship opportunities through orientations and notifications they get from the Jefferson Scholarship program.

    "They definitely make people aware - we're getting mailings," Hogan said.

    "We're encouraged to apply" by the Jefferson Scholars program for national scholarships, Cavanaugh said, but after that, students must take the initiative.

    Similarly, the Echols program notifies Echols Scholars about other scholarship opportunities, Hurd said.

    National scholarships, such as the Rhodes and Truman, typically provide funding for graduate studies. University students who hope to win a national award are advised to apply for scholarships while completing undergraduate studies. The process of applying helps prepare these students for competition at the national level, she said.

    She added that the fellowship office tries to connect all interested students with scholarship opportunities and also relies on faculty recommendations.

    "We try to find the best students, as the donors want us to," Hurd said. She said the fellowship office does not groom hopefuls for national scholarships, as is the case at some schools, she said.

    Other universities have active programs to help strong students get national scholarships to bring prestige to the schools, College Asst. Dean William Wilson said.

    Some even offer credits for attending scholarship workshops, Hurd said.

    "I think it's actually fairly common," she said, referring to active scholarship-recruitment programs at other universities.

    Jefferson Scholars do not get special consideration when scholarships are awarded, said Wilson, who has worked with scholarship hopefuls part time for nearly a decade.

    "It really doesn't move us," he said. "That's something they've already won."

    Meanwhile, the administrators who deal with the Dean's Scholarships and national scholarships are planning to open an office to make it easier for students to learn about merit-based scholarship activities.

    How the University compares

    While few schools have a program of the same size as the Jefferson Scholars program, some schools with similar programs do have limitations on the amount of money students can win from merit-based awards.

    At the University of Michigan, students who receive the Rogel or Shipman scholarships, which are similar to the Jefferson Scholarship, forfeit some of their stipend if they win other merit-based awards, said Sharon Blumenfield, a financial aid officer.

    At UC-Berkeley, however, which does not have a "full-ride" merit scholarship program like the Jefferson Scholars program, merit-based scholarships are not restricted, said Richard Black, director of financial aid at UC-Berkley.

    (Cavalier Daily Life Editor Ryann Collins and Cavalier Daily Focus Editor Amy Shapiro contributed to this article)