Focused excellence should reward excellence

By Damion LeeNatali
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, March 25, 2005

The mother was glaring disapprovingly at me, and I couldn't find it in myself to fault her for it.

It was a typical Friday morning. I was giving a tour for visiting high school seniors, and I had just told her that her son might not be able to receive the same scholarship package that I had. Trying her hand at redundancy, she insisted that he was an "extremely, extraordinarily, amazingly talented student." I could do nothing but shrug, hoping to distract her by pointing to our "exquisite" new Alumni Plaza.

Indignant mothers notwithstanding, UA students should be wary of recent developments that are effectively working to undercut the value of merit-based financial aid. Although the administration refrained from fixing tuition waivers at a set rate this week, the philosophy behind the waivers (that an academically talented student will be shielded from mercurial tuition rates) is under siege.

Though tuition waivers have for now been spared the fate of becoming fixed cash awards, they will not cover a host of new mandatory fees. Thus, despite the fact that students with waivers came to the UA under the guise of a "tuition-free" college career, they will face de facto tuition increases in the form of mandatory fees. Taken in this light, accusations of bait and switch hardly seem inappropriate.

Perhaps what is most troubling is that the administration could conceivably revisit the notion of converting tuition waivers into fixed cash awards, whereby students would be awarded a prescribed sum of money that does not increase with tuition. Unfortunately, such a move would run contrary to President Peter Likins' Focused Excellence initiative, which rightly emphasizes attracting top students as well as raising tuition.

Admitting students of a higher caliber will have the positive effect of bolstering retention rates as well as the value of our degrees. Tuition increases are similarly pragmatic, if only for the simple reason that the UA must keep pace with its peer institutions even while the Arizona Legislature is either unable or unwilling to aid in that pursuit.

With an eye toward becoming a more competitive institution, President Likins' Focused Excellence proposal is supposed to have the positive effect of increasing the quality of the UA's student body. Unfortunately, altering tuition waivers would essentially have the opposite effect by making the UA less attractive to high-achieving students.

Currently, the UA can boast of some fairly impressive numbers. For the 2003-2004 academic year, it attracted 58 National Merit Scholars and more Flinn Scholars than any other Arizona university. The average grade point average, ACT and SAT scores of incoming honors

freshmen were 3.89, 27.9 and 1270, respectively.

The numbers seem to speak for themselves, but such success would be in jeopardy if tuition waivers were abandoned in favor of fixed awards. Indeed, it doesn't seem wholly pessimistic to predict that, absent the considerable enticement of tuition waivers, many exceptional students will turn to other institutions that generously compensate them for their talent.

Taken in this light, the question is not whether the UA is successful now but whether it can maintain that success. Not surprisingly, the ability to retain high-achieving students plays a substantial role in answering that question.

The UA still stands as "Arizona's first university" and by a wide array of measures. But if its ultimate goal is excellence, and if gifted students are a significant part of that goal, it seems at the very least self-defeating to dispense with one of the most alluring incentives the university has at its disposal.

In the meantime, students with and without tuition waivers will have to contend with an amalgam of new fees, some of which are justified and others of which warrant skepticism. In the interest of maintaining the academic caliber of this university, though, administrators would do well to leave tuition waivers as they are.

Damion LeeNatali is a political science and history sophomore. He can be reached at