Schieffer Blames Perry for UT Merit Program Withdrawal

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    U.S. State Department
    Tom Schieffer, former Ambassador to Japan and Australia.

    The University of Texas at Austin has decided to end its practice of giving scholarships to National Merit Scholars, saying it would prefer to base financial aid more on financial need.

    The university awarded more academic-based scholarships for Merit Scholars than any other campus besides Harvard, in the amount of roughly $13,000 per student over four years.

    Gov. Rick Perry might not have hung the moon when it comes to education in Texas -- it currently ranks last in the number of people who have a high school degree as well as near last in average SAT scores. But was he responsible, directly or indirectly, for the demise of the academic Merit Scholarship program at the University of Texas at Austin?

    Tom Schieffer, Democratic candidate for Texas governor, issued a statement recently that draws this conclusion.

    "At a time when Texas should be competing for the best and the brightest, today’s announcement that the University of Texas at Austin will no longer participate in the National Merit Scholarship Program is a strong indictment of Gov. Rick Perry’s policy of starving higher education," Schieffer said.

    Anyone reasonably hates to see a program that rewards students based on academic performance go away, and anyone could contend with the University of Texas on whether this is a wise decision or will hurt the state's chances of recruiting top scholars. But one is hard pressed to make the case that the fault belongs to any one individual.

    Despite ubiquitous financial pressures, the state of Texas has actually increased funding to its public universities across the board for several years in a row. It gave UT Austin 7.2 percent more in FY 2008-2009 than in 2006-2007, according to the state Legislative Budget Board.

    “A great university should be able to both serve needy students and offer the best students throughout the country an opportunity to be educated at their campus," Thomas Melecki, the university's director of student financial services, told the San Antonio Express News.

    The Merit Scholar program is also a private enterprise, funded by corporations and individuals, not the state.

    One could argue that if the state gave even more money the university wouldn't have felt financial pressure to pull out of the program, but would more money have prompted it to not choose a more egalitarian approach to financial aid during a financial crisis? Doubtful.

    Holly LaFon has written for various local publications including D Magazine and Examiner.