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Awarding scholarship accordingly

Last weekend, scores of acclaimed secondary school seniors visited the University, vying for a prestigious Jefferson Scholarship. If the ultimate recipients are like past and current scholars, their scholar class will boast authors, musicians, linguists, student leaders, world travelers, valedictorians and, of course, SAT savants. But, surprisingly enough, this alone isn't what the University really needs.

Having been chosen according to merit-based criteria that give no deference to financial background, these academic superstars inherently include some of the nation's most advantaged youth. The problem is the University simply doesn't need more upper-class whiz kids -- not at a time when it's so pressed for hard-working, exceptionally capable, financially "ordinary" Americans.

First, let me be clear: Our current recipients are very smart and decent people. Moreover, it's true that importing the country's sharpest young minds benefits the University. Their stratospheric SAT scores nudge up the University's reported mean. They frequently become role models among their classmates. And the Scholars' diverse passions make great human interest stories -- precisely the kind that fill those glossy prospectuses shipped off to wide-eyed college applicants.

Yet despite their benefits, shopping for scholars without regard to their financial background is simply not the best way for the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to promote the University's interest. Instead, the Foundation must consciously evaluate the financial resources upon which candidates have built their academic careers if it hopes to promote this public learning institution's central mission -- namely, making available superlative academic resources to the capable, lower- and middle-income families that need and appreciate them the most.

The thing scholars plainly lack, in the aggregate, is need. Among Class of 2009 Scholars, for example, 18 of 35 attended some private secondary school -- compared to just one in 10 Americans. Many of these students come from schools such as Connecticut's Choate and Atlanta's Westminster which are legendary magnets for wealth, culture and class. Of the 17 who attended public schools, nearly all attended inordinately white, middle- and upper-class schools. Only three attended schools with minority enrollment near their respective states' averages or schools with above-average numbers of poor students receiving subsidized meals.

Individual scholars needn't apologize for being dealt an amazing to hand in the game of life. But the Foundation that identifies Scholars should reconsider its priorities when doling out cash.

One could argue that, morally, individuals that won the good brains, good health and good family lottery shouldn't also win free University tuition, free room, free board, free books and a free European "summer enrichment program." Or, if that's OK, maybe a University affiliate at least shouldn't encourage our alumni millionaires to exploit tax deductions by "charitably" channeling their riches to so many soon-to-be consultants, lawyers and doctors. Another might question whether a non-profit foundation -- beholden to a moneyed class of elder alumni -- can really be expected to identify "merit" in any way other than that which promotes the ideals (and progeny) of its privileged benefactors.

The most persuasive argument, though, may turn on the University's cold, hard self-interest. Unfortunately, too many would-be applicants see the University as a country club for valedictorians because there's not much "public" at this public school. Nearly 60 percent of the Class of 2007, for example, reported family incomes of over $100,000 -- twice the Virginia average. About 20 percent reported incomes over $200,000 -- a figure that trounces 97 percent of Americans. And our percentage of federal, need-based Pell Grant recipients pales compared to California, Michigan and North Carolina's prestigious state schools. In an era when top college applicants expect pluralism at school, that lack of economic diversity becomes a critical competitive liability.

Moreover, with climbing tuition bills, daunting admissions standards and just a middling reputation for research, the University is easily painted as a tax-subsidized, gilded, ivory tower. With that reputation, it's unsurprising that the General Assembly increasingly promotes prominent research universities like Virginia Tech and George Mason as well as local community colleges at the financial expense of this flagship institution. Decreasing support handicaps our operations vis-à-vis other "Public Ivies," and it also means higher tuition, chiseling away the University's reputation as a "best bargain."

Our University is indeed working to cast future student bodies from molds more representative of the people. Its new AccessU.Va. program can now fund the tuition of 200-some needy students per class. But this program is merely playing catch up -- schools like Princeton, Brown, Stanford and the University of North Carolina all already deliver outstanding, free tuition to multitudes of needy students. As such, the University still labors to recruit the best minds from humble homes or depressed neighborhoods.

The Foundation -- with its ability to disburse large cash awards, prestige, and networking opportunities -- is uniquely poised to help. So far, however, the Foundation, an independent non-profit, has declined to do so. The Foundation boasts that recipients are chosen "solely on the basis of merit" and insists that students' financial background is irrelevant to identifying merit. It doesn't even inquire into financial need until after awards have been offered.

Regrettably, the Foundation is now returning to the University's well of alumni donors, hoping to raise 50 million dollars for an expanded Scholarship endowment. That's not an inconsequential sum -- it could easily cover the annual tuition of 250 needy Virginians or about 80 non-Virginians, for perpetuity. Instead, it will go to more of the same: More free rides, given mostly to students of inherited opportunity, and without regard to the financial need of the student public or the public image of the University.

The Foundation clearly intends to improve the University community by attracting innovative minds with financial incentives. That's commendable, but it should recognize ways to entice merit without disproportionately awarding privilege. The Foundation could provide tuition-debt relief to public servants. It could limit fellowships to graduate students in lower-compensated fields of study. Or it simply could add financial and family background as probative and compelling indicators of a nominee's past and future accomplishment in this world.

But so long as the Foundation holds on to its blinders, donors should hold on to their wallets. Better yet, they should give to AccessU.Va. instead.

John A. Clark is a Cavalier Daily contributor. He is a third-year Law student and a former Cavalier Daily editor-in-chief.