Arizona May End Scholarships for High Achievers

PHOENIX — The Arizona Board of Regents is considering ending a popular college scholarship program for high achievers.

The AIMS scholarships pay tuition and fees at the state’s three public universities for high school students who perform well on the standardized Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test.

But the scholarships are costing too much and the universities want more discretion to funnel some of the money toward need-based scholarships.

The scholarships have become a tremendous cost for the universities, Regent Dennis DeConcini said.

When the awards were introduced in 2006, annual tuition and fees for an Arizona resident totaled about $4,600 at Arizona State University. Now, the amount for incoming freshmen is about $8,100.

University officials blame state budget cuts for the possible demise of the scholarships, saying the situation makes it challenging to serve a growing number of students. But scholarship supporters, including parents and students, say they are counting on them to pay for rising college  costs. They say the AIMS scholarship is an incentive for students to work hard in high school.

Members of a regents committee will discuss possible changes Thursday, and the full board is expected to vote in August. Students who already have the scholarship will not be affected by any changes.

Students in Arizona qualify for the scholarship by scoring “exceeds” on all three parts reading, writing and math of the 10th-grade AIMS test. About 6 percent of students who take the test exceed standards in all three areas.

The scholarship covers four years of tuition and fees based on freshman year costs. Students must pick up the tab for any increases in the second through fourth years.

Efforts to change the scholarship are meeting resistance from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, the man responsible for creating the award.

“It has been a tremendous motivator,” said Dr. Horne, who also is a member of the Board of Regents. “I’ll fight as hard as I can to keep it, because it motivates people to study.”

The regents will consider phasing out the scholarships over a few years, replacing it with a new merit-type scholarship, cutting its value to 25 to 50 percent of costs, or keeping it the same but allowing only one shot at the AIMS test to qualify.

An estimated 8,394 students received the AIMS scholarship in the 2009-10 school year, or about 8 percent of undergraduate students at the three state universities. The scholarships costs the universities about $44 million a year out of a total $280 million in need and merit scholarships given out. The money comes from a percentage of tuition revenue the universities receive.

Eliminating the scholarship won’t result in a $44 million annual savings, however, because many students who get the AIMS scholarships would still be eligible for other full or partial merit scholarships, university officials say. The estimated savings would be $12.5 million. University officials say they would apply some of the savings toward other scholarships and the rest toward academic programs.

“We’re trying to take our current institutional resources and impact more students,” said Kent Hopkins, ASU’s vice provost for enrollment management. That could translate into more awards of partial-tuition scholarships for students, he said.

Claudia Swartz, of Scottsdale, is one parent who hopes the universities will keep the scholarship. Her 16-year-old son, Jake, will be a high-school junior this fall and has already met the AIMS test requirements to have his tuition waived.

The family had set aside money for college but had to spend it on other things when the economy took a dive, she said.

“We were really hanging our hat on it,” she said of the AIMS scholarship.

Swartz said if the regents eliminate the scholarship, she hopes they will at least let the current rules apply to students now in high school.