Posted on July 6, 2005

UC May End Its National Merit Grant Program

Stuart Silverstein, Los Angeles Times, July 6

Much like star quarterbacks and point guards, the select group of high school seniors who win the annual National Merit Scholarship competition are recruited by major universities around the country.

But six University of California campuses that have courted these high-scoring students in past years are considering pulling out of the program, a move that could reverberate nationally.

The issue, scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of UC chancellors in Oakland today, echoes debates over the validity of the SAT college entrance exam in assessing students.

UC critics of the National Merit program fault its reliance on the PSAT, a 2-hour and 10-minute practice SAT taken by 1.3 million high school juniors yearly. The PSAT serves as the initial screening test for the National Merit program and is used to eliminate nearly 99% of the candidates and reduce the group to 16,000 semifinalists.

They note that UC itself relies on an array of factors — not just standardized tests — to evaluate students’ academic merit. And they contend that there is no evidence that the PSAT by itself is an accurate predictor of college performance.

In addition, these critics say that the National Merit selection process yields too few Latino, black, low-income and other underrepresented groups of students every year among the 8,000-plus U.S. scholarship winners. About 3% of UC’s National Merit students are black, Latino or Native American, according to the most recent available statistics.

Late last month, a UC faculty leadership council voted 17-0 to recommend that the system’s campuses pull out of the program. The final decision is up to the chancellors of the six participating UC campuses — UCLA, Irvine, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Davis — who can act individually or as a group. The only UC undergraduate campuses not participating are Berkeley, which pulled out in 2002, and Merced and Riverside.