Utah’s Regents’ Scholarship to base awards on student needs as well as merit

Critics — including some on the Utah Board of Education — say the program was altered with little public input and without regard for current students.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Tatiana Pedroso waves to family before the start of commencement ceremonies for Salt Lake Community College at the Maverik Center on Friday, May 5, 2017. The Utah System of Higher Education has proposed changes to how it awards the popular Regents' Scholarship for incoming college students.

The Utah System of Higher Education is fielding questions and complaints after announcing that a popular, state-funded scholarship program for high-performing students will change its system for awarding cash.

Starting in 2019, the Regents’ Scholarship — which currently provides $1,250 per semester to qualifying students — will begin offering awards of varying amounts to college-bound students, based on a hybrid of merit as well as financial need and the money they receive from other scholarship sources.

After the final details are approved by the Board of Regents — likely this month — the change is expected to make better use of public dollars while allowing more students to participate, Utah commissioner of higher education David Buhler said.

“We think this change is very much for the better, and will be very positive for Utah students,” Buhler said. “That’s the whole reason we’re doing it.”

But some Utahns, including state school board member Joel Wright, worry the changes were made without adequate public discussion and with little notice to current high school students who expect to earn the full scholarship after they graduate.

“This has blindsided me and the state Board of Education,” Wright said, “and everyone in the K-12 community.”

Wright said it is common for students to plan their middle and high school schedules with an eye toward the scholarship’s requirements. By implementing the changes in 2019, he said, it weakens an academic incentive that current freshmen, sophomores and juniors have planned on for years.

“Maybe we’re just a bunch of whiners,” Wright said. “But this is a really effective program that’s really helping our high school kids organize and prioritize and move toward college.”

Changes to the scholarship program are intended to stretch state dollars further with an eye toward low-income and first-generation college students. The move was recommended to lawmakers earlier this year, leading to recent amendments to state law that include “need-based measures that address college affordability and access.”

Currently, students qualify for the Regents’ award by earning at least a 3.5 grade point average and a score of 26 on the ACT exam. They must also complete a rigorous course load, including a fourth year of mathematics and two years studying a foreign language.

The new structure will continue to evaluate students based on their GPA, ACT score and transcript, albeit with relaxed minimum thresholds. And students will be required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which determines financial aid eligibility based on family income.

Increasing the number of students filling out the FAFSA has long been a goal of the Utah System of Higher Education, as reports suggest Utah students fail to take advantage of available financial aid.

And while scholarship recipients currently receive a uniform amount, the actual dollar figure has always been subject to funding levels approved by the state Legislature, Buhler said.

“That [$1,250] has never been a guarantee,” Buhler said. “It’s always been the case that it depends on the amount of money available.”

Roughly 3,800 high school gradates entered the program last fall, and on average 90 percent of awardees receive additional scholarships from other sources, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

The new program will package campus and Regents’ scholarships together, Buhler said, and will ensure an as-yet-undetermined minimum dollar amount for qualifying students.

“Any student who meets the requirements of the scholarship will receive an award,” Buhler said.

Wright said the updates are worthy of discussion, but he feels that discussion never took place. He said he acknowledged that the students who are most impacted are high-performing teens from relatively affluent families. But those students benefit from incentives to challenge themselves beyond the state’s graduation requirements, he said, and were told their hard work would be rewarded.

“For my kids it would be helpful but it probably won’t determine whether they go to college or not — that’s valid criticism,” Wright said. “It’s been there for a long long time and everybody assumed it was going to be there in the future.”

The legislative changes to the program were discussed during public meetings, Buhler said, and have been included in the Board of Regents’ newsletter and meeting agendas. He said it’s unfortunate that members of the education community feel surprised by the announcement, but emphasized efforts taken to inform school counselors and administrators.

“This has not been a secret,” he said. “Certainly, there’s not intent on our part to keep it from anyone