Smarter Scholarships

Times Staff Writer

Did anyone even notice when UC Berkeley dropped out of the National Merit Scholarship program a couple of years ago? Certainly, the campus didn't lose a jot of prestige after its decision to stop wooing the winners and giving them scholarships that average more than $1,000 each.

Likewise, it wouldn't hurt the other six University of California campuses considering the same step.

As Times reporter Stuart Silverstein wrote last week, the nonprofit National Merit program relies heavily on the PSAT, a two-hour-and-10-minute test that acts as a sort of practice exam for the SAT. Nearly 99% of students are eliminated on the basis of that one test.

The National Merit Scholarship Corp. is partners with the College Board, which administers the PSAT and SAT.

After further screening determines the winners, they are automatically eligible for scholarships at about 200 participating colleges and universities.

Universities, including UC, don't pick students based solely on one standardized test, so why should they hand out scholarships that way? Especially considering that affluent students, whose parents can afford SAT coaching, are more likely to score high.

Though Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget includes a nice funding boost for UC, students will still have to pay 8% more in fees, on top of a substantial increase last year.

Make no mistake, a UC education is a bargain, but it still makes more sense for the chancellors to convert the 600-plus new National Merit Scholarships they hand out each year into financial awards for deserving students who can't afford the higher fees.

Otherwise it will go to students more likely to be able to afford the fees, largely on the basis of a test that has not been proved to predict success in college.

This past academic year, UCLA spent close to $470,000 on its 228 National Merit Scholarship winners.

The schools have other merit-based scholarships they can bestow to draw top students, yet determine the amount by need. And the National Merit organization can continue to give out its own and related corporate scholarships.

The Ivy League's prestige remains intact despite its refusal to participate in the National Merit program, and there's very little chance UC would suffer by doing the fairer thing.

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