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.
George Blumenthal, chairman of the leadership council and of the Academic Senate for the UC system, noted that UC campuses also offer Regents' and chancellor's scholarships to top-flight undergraduate students regardless of whether they are financially needy.
Such scholarships, Blumenthal said, are "a perfectly reasonable recruitment tool to find the best students.... The issue is, if you're going to have merit scholarships, you ought to use criteria for merit that really do measure merit."
While acknowledging that many universities recruit National Merit winners to boost their academic reputation, Blumenthal, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, added that "maybe we should be above it all and do what's right rather than what gets us the highest ratings."
UC campuses spent $735,000 on National Merit scholarships for 618 students, an average of $1,189 per winner, during the past school year.
Despite the unanimous vote by faculty leaders, campus officials say the chancellors probably won't abruptly scrap their National Merit scholarship programs. The chancellors are expected to discuss the issue only in general terms today.
But if the campuses did pull out of the program, students already awarded UC-sponsored National Merit scholarships would not be affected, officials say.
Elaine Detweiler, a spokeswoman for the Evanston, Ill.,-based National Merit Scholarship Corp., defended her nonprofit organization's approach to selecting scholarship winners. She noted that, to advance to the final round of the National Merit competition, students must submit additional information, including their grades, recommendations from their schools and a personal statement.
Further, the use of a standardized test, such as the PSAT, "enables us to evaluate 1.3 million students on the same basis and in a timely manner," she said.
The program, and its reliance on the PSAT, also was supported by National Merit scholarship winners, such as Danielle Marie Read, 21, of Fullerton, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at UCLA.
She said some students spend thousands of dollars on tutors to give them an advantage on the SATs but are less likely to have taken prep classes in time for the practice test.
As a result, "it seemed really fair," she said.
"When I took PSAT, I knew nothing about the potential scholarship. I just used it as a practice and tried my best," Read added.
Administrators of many other universities in the U.S. continue to back the 50-year-old scholarship program.
Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett, senior vice-provost of the University of Kansas, conceded that the PSAT is a limited test that fails to fully reflect students' academic performance. Still, she said, "We've just had such success with the students we've recruited who are National Merits that it's never been a concern."