Utah will end 2 popular merit scholarships to shift millions to students who can’t afford college

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student claps her hands as she joins other East High graduates in celebrating on Wednesday, May 29, 2019.

Two popular state-funded scholarships for high-achieving students will be phased out to free up millions of dollars more for students who can’t afford college, Utah’s higher education leaders have decided.

The Regents Scholarship started in 2011 and had $16 million to designate for students who performed well in a series of math, science and English classes. The New Century Scholarship used $2 million to cover college tuition for students who graduated from high school with an associate degree.

Both will end with the high school graduating class of 2021. Resources will shift to the Access Utah Promise Scholarship, the first needs-based scholarship awarded by the state, which was approved by lawmakers earlier this year.

The move will redistribute the state’s pot of roughly $20 million designated for all scholarships so that 70%, or $14 million, goes to those with financial needs. Previously, $2 million did.

“This is really consistent with other discussions we’ve had about moving toward more needs-based scholarships,” said Utah Board of Regents Chairman Harris Simmons, celebrating the unanimous vote Friday.

The Access Utah Promise Scholarship is meant to assist students coming from low-income families whose households make less than $50,000 a year. It combines state money with federal grants to cover tuition for qualified students over their first two years of school.

The state has worried that many of the students receiving Regents and New Century merit awards didn’t actually need them to pay for tuition, and that some were stacking scholarships and pocketing extra funds. Ninety percent of the state’s scholarship designations went to those two awards. After the change, that will drop to 30%, or $6 million, being awarded based on merit or academic achievement.

“This is an attempt to be more equitable,” said student board member Sheva Mozafari, who led a seven-person task force formed by the board to study the issue in July and called the adjustment a huge shift.

Those currently in the Regents and New Century programs will continue to receive their funds through completion. “We wouldn’t want to just take that away, since they have been working toward that,” Mozafari added.

When those programs are gone, the board will give the annual $6 million remaining for merit scholarships directly to the eight public colleges and universities it oversees. Those schools will then be able to award money based on their individually set GPA and ACT score requirements.

And the larger $14 million chunk will go to the needs-based program. About 8,000 students each year will qualify for a piece of that.

While the board can redistribute that scholarship money as it wants, the Legislature will need to vote in order to dissolve the Regent and New Century programs, said Utah System of Higher Education spokeswoman Melanie Heath. Lawmakers would also need to support one more recommendation approved by the board, which would allow students receiving the Promise scholarship to use federal grants to also pay for books and housing, in addition to tuition.

Additionally, the board intends to regularly assess how the scholarship programs are functioning and monitor, as Mozafari said, “the very vast gap between” funding for merit and need awards.

The shift should also save the $1 million previously spent each year by the Utah System of Higher Education to administer the merit awards.