U Cal Drops National Merit

University Testing

The University of California (UC) will no longer fund National Merit Scholarships because of concerns about test misuse in the program’s process for selecting winners. The decision came after UC faculty leaders disclosed the lack of justification for relying on a single exam, the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT), to eliminate 99 percent of potentially eligible students (see Examiner, Spring 2005). This exam misuse guarantees that few awards will go to members of disenfranchised minority or low-income groups because of long-standing differences in test scores.


The UC policy change was not a rejection of merit-based aid in principle but of reliance on a single exam to choose awardees. UC Provost M.R.C. Greenwood explained, “This is an issue of ensuring that when the university uses its own resources to fund merit-based scholarships, it does so in a way that is consistent with its own policies.” UC Academic Senate chairman George Blumenthal added, “We believe we have better standards for measuring academic merit,” referring to grades and other factors in a student’s record.


Money previously used for National Merit Scholarships will be spent on other forms of financial aid at the six UC campuses which previously awarded them. In the 2004-2005 academic year, UC sponsored 600 National Merit awards worth about three-quarters of a million dollars.


FairTest assisted several UC faculty and staff who led the successful effort to end public funding of the awards. For two decades FairTest has led a coalition of civil rights, feminist and education reform organizations trying to stop the misuse of scores from the PSAT/NMSQT as the primary qualifying factor in the competition (see Examiner, Fall 1987 and Fall 1986).


The UC decision should deliver a clear message to all institutions which sponsor similar scholarships: Test scores do not equal “merit.”