University of Houston-Downtown Campus Introduces Honors Program

Editor’s Note: The profile of the new honors program at UH-Downtown comes from Houston attorney Jane Mueller Fly, who also teaches at the campus. Ms. Fly is also the author of The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One and The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role.

The University of Houston–Downtown, located on the historic Buffalo Bayou in the heart of our nation’s fourth largest city, is one of four distinct universities within the University of Houston System. With an enrollment of over 14,000 students, UH-D is the second largest university in Houston, exceeded only by the University of Houston flagship campus located just 5 miles to the south.

UH-D is also the most ethnically diverse university in Texas, and ranks among the top 40 schools in the nation for graduating African-American and Hispanic students with bachelor’s degrees.

UH-D attracts talented students with 44 undergraduate majors, 8 master’s degree programs, and one of the lowest tuition rates of four-year universities in the state. For students interested in taking on an extra challenge, however, the University Honors Program is a good option.

The University Honors Program admitted its first students in 2014. In the fall of 2016, approximately 30 incoming freshmen will join the 50 students currently enrolled in the program.

Interested students must complete a written application. While applications are reviewed holistically, priority consideration is given to students meeting established criteria for SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA, and high school class rank. According to Mari L. Nicholson-Preuss, Ph.D., Director of the University Honors Program, the written application “provides students with the opportunity to elaborate on their academic experience and achievements in the areas of scholarship, leadership and citizenship.”

The application includes a required essay, an optional personal statement, and space for a URL in case the applicant would like to submit a link to supplemental information, such as a portfolio or a YouTube video.

Should a student’s high school record fall short of the criteria required for priority consideration, Dr. Nicholson-Preuss encourages him or her to apply by submitting, along with the application, a high school transcript as well as additional evidence of achievement.

According to Dr. Nicholson-Preuss, “[t]he options for additional evidence are rather broad and should allow the student to build a case as to why they should be admitted to the program. Supplemental evidence could include AP/IB scores, letters of recommendation, completion of leadership programs, capstone projects, service projects, University Interscholastic League, and other academic awards and honors, portfolios and writing samples.”

Once accepted into the University Honors Program, students commit to meet with both the director and a peer mentor each month, to attend one hour of weekly honors study hall each week, and to participate in at least 3 honors events each semester. Freshmen and sophomore students are expected to enroll in at least 30 credit hours per academic year, including 18 hours in Honors sections over the 2 years. In order to graduate from the University Honors Program, a student must maintain a 3.25 GPA and complete 30 hours of Honors credits.

Program perks include an Honors Lounge, the peer mentor program, social events such as attending a Houston Astros baseball game, scholarship opportunities, special lectures, invitations to community events, priority course registration, smaller classes, and opportunities to represent the university in public.

Honors students also have opportunities to take “linked courses”, and benefit from overlapping content or focus. The Honors Program is also developing additional thematically linked courses, focusing particularly on those that enhance UH-D’s commitment to service-based learning, community engagement, and social justice issues.

This is an exciting time to be part of the new Honors community at UH-D, as it continues to develop additional Honors courses and innovative plans for the future.

The National Merit Journey Part Two: The Parent’s Role

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. You can read the first segment here.

Author Jane Mueller Fly is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus. Here is a sentence from part two:

“I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance.” The full article, below, tells you why.

In Part One, I discussed the steps in the National Merit Scholarship competition. Of course, it is the student who must ace the PSAT and have the impressive high school resume required to progress all the way to National Merit Scholar. But parents have a role to play as well, ensuring that their students have the best possible chance to grab the golden National Merit ring.

As parents, we walk a fine line between appropriately guiding our children, and stunting their growth with the wind from our helicopter blades. When do you step back and let them learn from their failures? When do you step in to help?

The National Merit Scholarship competition is one place where parent involvement may be vital to the student’s success. If the thought of too much involvement makes you cringe, however, consider this: should your student become a National Merit Finalist, he or she will be able to choose from a long list of colleges and universities offering generous scholarships, including many 4-year full rides. Let the hovering begin.

Many critics of the National Merit Scholarship competition believe it is based entirely on the PSAT, a short test administered by College Board and taken during the junior year of high school. The truth, however, is that students who ultimately progress to National Merit Scholar have cleared many more hurdles than just a high PSAT score. For example, the student must have stellar grades throughout high school. One D, or a couple of Cs, is enough to eliminate students from the competition. If your student is already a senior, then this advice comes a bit too late. But if you have younger students, or an older student with early-onset senioritis, you now have one more reason to encourage your student to keep up the grades.

As junior year approaches, many students begin preparing for the PSAT and other standardized tests. Prep courses, in person or online, may improve your student’s scores, but there is no reason to shell out the big bucks. Free online help is available from sources such as Khan Academy, and PSAT/SAT study guides are another inexpensive alternative. The parent’s role is to encourage your student to study for the PSAT. In particular, be sure they complete at least a couple of timed PSATs for practice. It will help them with pacing during the one that counts.

Of course, once test day is over, you and your student will be eager to see the scores. College Board sends PSAT scores to principals in December, but many schools wait until after winter break to distribute the scores and the code needed by students to view test results online. Keep track of the dates. When PSAT scores are due, don’t be shy about asking the school when scores will be distributed. Better yet, have your student ask.

Once you’ve seen the score, you may wonder whether your student is still in the running for National Merit Scholar. Many online forums have state-by-state lists showing the PSAT cutoff scores required in past years, so while you won’t know for certain for many months whether your student’s PSAT score will qualify him or her for Semifinalist, you can at least get some indication of where your student stands.

Of course every student should now be gearing up for the SAT and ACT. The PSAT score should give you an idea of areas requiring more focus. Your math genius may need to hone her Critical Reading skills. Your future writer may need to review the quadratic formula. For kids whose PSAT scores indicate they may qualify as National Merit Semifinalists, the SAT takes on new meaning. Be sure your student signs up and takes the SAT junior year, preferably while the PSAT material is still fresh. The goal for the National Merit competition is to reach at least a 1960 on the SAT, as this has historically been the score deemed to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. (See Part One of this article for the method of calculating the SAT score for purposes of the National Merit Scholarship competition).

By taking the SAT during junior year, your student will have ample opportunities to retake the test if necessary to earn of score of 1960. Don’t forget that College Board must send the SAT score to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. This is a great use of one of your free SAT score reports. If it turns out that the SAT score does not meet or exceed 1960, no harm done. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation will accept the highest score, so your student can retake the SAT and submit the new scores.

This is a good time to stress three important points. First, the PSAT and SAT are products of College Board. The National Merit program, however, is run by a private non-profit called the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. College Board and NMSC are two different entities. Second, as many frustrated parents have learned, most communication related to the PSAT and the National Merit Scholarship competition is sent to students via their high school principals. Third, many school administrators are unaware that the correspondence they receive has not also been sent to the student. One parent was told flat out by the principal that students know their PSAT scores well before the school is notified. While this would certainly make sense, it just is not true.

Another parent was advised by a guidance counselor that NMSC mails Semifinalist letters to students’ home addresses. Again, not true, unless your student is home-schooled, in which case the school and home address are the same. But it is completely understandable that the principal and guidance counselor would believe the information had already been sent to you. And while, for many parents and students, news from NMSC is of highest priority, your high school administrators must also deal with matters such as new education legislation and a sophomore smoking weed in the parking lot. So cut them some slack.

Sometime in April, principals will be notified which, if any, of their students have scored in the top 50,000 nationwide. The principal is asked to verify data submitted by the student that confirms the student’s eligibility for the competition. As usual, this notification is not sent to parents or students, and very often the school does not pass the information on to parents, so don’t be surprised if you are never notified that your student is on the list. By now you should already know your student’s PSAT score and the online forums will be buzzing with news of the nationwide score needed to place in the top 50,000. If you think your student’s name should be on the list, but you cannot relax without knowing for sure, by all means contact the school or, better yet, have your student do so.

While parents and students are eager for this news, the more significant notification from NMSC arrives in September and, as usual, is sent to the principal. This notification provides a letter for each student who has qualified, by virtue of the PSAT score, as one of 16,000 Semifinalists. The letter includes the login information needed so that the student may begin the online application for Finalist. The letter also, unfortunately, advises the principal that the information is not to be made public until a later date. While the letter does in fact permit the principal to notify parents and students of Semifinalist standing, the policy at many schools is to not release the information to anyone, not even to students and parents, until the moratorium on publicity is lifted. If your student is not one of the lucky ones called immediately to the principal’s office for the good news, then keep an eye on the online forums where a state-by-state cutoff list will begin to materialize as qualifying students post their scores.

Eventually, though, your student must gain access to the letter sent to the principal. Parents, don’t be timid. By now you’ve been somewhat assured, by complete strangers who posted state cutoff scores online, that your student has qualified as a Semifinalist. Have your student talk to his guidance counselor, and if that doesn’t work, send an email or place a call yourself. Remember, the good people at the school probably believe that NMSC sent you an identical letter. And they have that stoned sophomore to deal with. They won’t mind a friendly email from you:

“Dear Ms. Jones, We are eagerly awaiting news as to whether our son has qualified as a National Merit Semifinalist, and I just learned that notification letters have been sent to the high schools. I know you’re busy, but could you please let me know if my son is a Semifinalist? If so, the National Merit Scholarship Corporation says he has to have the login information from the letter in order to complete an online application, so would you please also give him a copy of the letter?“

There. That was easy.

So now you have the letter containing the secret code, and your student can log in to the NMSC website to begin the application. Be sure your student takes the application, including the essay, seriously. An anecdote has circled for years about a permanent Semifinalist (a student who did not progress to Finalist) whose essay lambasted the National Merit program. This is not a time for your child to become an anecdote. The essay matters. Once complete, be sure your student’s part of the application, and confirming SAT score, are submitted on time.

The other half of the application is to be completed by someone at the high school, and while it seems this is out of your control, it behooves you to stay on top of the process. It is also in the best interest of the school for your student, and all the school’s Semifinalists, to advance in the competition.

This part of the application requires that the principal “endorse” the student–a no brainer unless your kid was once that stoned sophomore or had other behavioral transgressions. The school must also list each course your student completed and grades (semester or quarter grades, depending upon which grades are used in your school’s GPA calculations). If your student has even one D or one or two Cs during high school, that may be enough to disqualify him or her from the competition. Be sure the guidance counselor realizes this and ask that it be addressed in the application. An explanation may make the difference. For example, the guidance counselor can address facts such as if the grade was in 9th grade and the student has matured since then, the student had a major illness that semester, etc. The school must also evaluate the student’s academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities, along with rigor of courses. If your school has more than one Semifinalist, all can be ranked at the highest level, so be sure your guidance counselor understands this.

Finally, the guidance counselor must submit a recommendation for the student. Perhaps your student is well known in the counselor’s office. But for many students, particularly in large schools, the guidance counselor has never had an opportunity to really get to know them. Writing a recommendation letter may be a challenge. So help your student put together a short resume listing things he or she may wish to have included in the recommendation letter: favorite courses, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, awards, community service commitments, employment, etc. Then have your student deliver the resume in person (preferably) or by email to the guidance counselor (or whomever is going to write the recommendation letter) with a short note.

“Dear Ms. Jones, Thank you for writing the National Merit recommendation letter for me. Here is a short resume I put together for you, just in case you need details about my activities in high school.”

If the guidance counselor needs the information, it will be readily available.

Parents are always worried that a deadline will be missed. In this regard, let me assure you of two things. First, you have a phone. Shortly before the deadline, pick up the phone and call NMSC. They will confirm whether the school has submitted the online application, and whether the SAT score requirement has been met. If the application has not yet been submitted, you have time to send a friendly reminder to the school. Then check back with NMSC. Then remind the school again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I know you don’t like to be annoying, but get over it. Remember, a full ride to college hangs in the balance. Your school administrators would prefer a friendly reminder as the deadline approaches rather than an irate phone call after the deadline has passed. Second, the NMSC makes great efforts to ensure that no student falls through the cracks, particularly over something out of the student’s control. Rest assured that even if the school fails to submit the application on time, or the SAT score is not received, or any number of other items is missing, a reminder will be sent.

Finally, there is an appeal process through NMSC available for students who do not progress to Finalist. But, as 15 out of 16 Semifinalists do progress to Finalist, I certainly hope you won’t need to appeal.

In summary, your student is busy being a senior, and could easily miss an important deadline. And your school’s administrators are busy dealing with more issues than you can imagine. So while you may not wish to be a helicopter parent, this is one time when you need to hover just a bit.

The National Merit Journey: What You Need to Know, Part One

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two detailed articles that describe the complex and often confusing process of becoming a National Merit Scholar. If you are already familiar with the PSAT qualifying test itself and the preliminary steps, you can scroll down to where you are in the process. At the end of the article is a discussion of the special terminology used by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The next installment will focus on the parent’s role in the process.

Author Jane Mueller Fly is an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Downtown Campus.

In October of each year, 1.5 million high school juniors will sit for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, or PSAT/NMSQT. For many, the test is just what the name implies: a preliminary SAT. But for others it is the opening bell for two years of anxiety also known as the National Merit Scholarship competition.

The Competition Begins with the PSAT. The PSAT/NMSQT (let’s just call it the PSAT) is the initial hurdle students must clear on the way to becoming National Merit Scholars. Scores are sent in December to the student’s high school. As you will see, notification through the high school is a continuing National Merit theme. The policy at many schools is to wait until after winter break to distribute the scores. So students and parents wait. Update: Students who took the October 2015 test should be able to get their scores on January 7 from the College Board.

The Top 50,000 Scores Nationwide. In April, high school principals are notified which, if any, of their students are among the top scoring 50,000 juniors nationwide. The principals are asked to confirm that those students are eligible for the National Merit Scholarship competition. These 50,000 students will continue in the competition. The remaining 1.45 million juniors are out.

The score required to rank in the top 50,000 fluctuates year to year. For students in the class of 2016, who took the PSAT as juniors in the fall of 2014, a score of 202 placed them in the top 50,000 scorers. Update: Students who took the PSAT in October 2015 will receive two scores, one a total test score ranging from 320 to 152o, and the other a selection index score from 48 to 228. Please see this recent post for qualifying selection index scores for the NMS Class of 2017.

Students in the top 50,000 scorers are guaranteed to be at least Commended Students, but all students are hoping to progress to National Merit Semi-Finalist. At this point in the competition, students and parents alike should hunker down for the long wait, because Semifinalists will not be notified until September of their senior year.

Semifinalists: The Top Scores by State. The lone criterion for progressing to Semifinalist is the PSAT score. Like the score required for Commended Students, the Semifinalist cutoff fluctuates year to year. But unlike the Commended Student cutoff score (209 for the class of 2017), which is the same for all students nationwide, the score required to progress to Semifinalist depends on the state in which the student attends high school. For example, students in the class of 2017 in North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming progressed to Semifinalist with a score of 209, while New Jersey seniors needed a stellar 222.

Perhaps you noticed that the class of 2017 Semifinalist cutoff score in the four lowest scoring states is the same as the nationwide Commended Student cutoff score. This means that there are no Commended Students in the class of 2017 in those four states, but don’t expect complaints from those students, as they have all progressed to Semifinalist.

Approximately 16,000 students will meet or exceed their state’s cutoff score, and will therefore be named Semifinalists. In early September of their senior year, they will be notified by, you guessed it, their high school principals. At this point, of the top scoring 50,000 students, the 34,000 students who are not named Semifinalists are officially National Merit Commended Students. This is of course a great honor, but a disappointment to many students, particularly to students who scored 221 in New Jersey, knowing that they would be Semifinalists in the other 49 states.

While the score required to progress to semifinalist varies from state to state, it is important to note that the NMSC does not publicize the state cutoff scores. This is a cause of great frustration to students eagerly awaiting a congratulatory call to the principal’s office. The letter sent by NMSC to high school principals in early September names the Semifinalists, and provides important login information Semifinalists need in order to complete the online application for Finalist. The letter advises principals the news may be shared only with the students and their families, not anyone else, including media sources, until a later date

Many principals choose to withhold the information from the anxious students, however, until the date the information may be made public. Other principals reasonably but erroneously believe that students have already received the news at their home addresses. Not true, as every Semifinalist knows. In this age of Internet forums and homeschoolers, however, the state-by-state cutoff scores tend to leak out. Homeschool “principals” who received the Semifinalist letters at their homes, and those seniors whose principals already shared the news, post their qualifying scores, or their heartbreaking just-misses, to online forums. A Texas student excitedly posts that she made Semifinalist with her score of 221, but her best friend did not with a score of 219, and later a homeschool parent posts that her son made the cut with a 220. And so it goes, state by state, until a complete state cutoff list materializes.

At this point in the National Merit Competition, it has been eleven months since the students sat for the PSAT exam in the fall of their junior year. Anxiety builds.

Finalists. The next step for the 16,000 Semifinalists is to submit an application to the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, or NMSC. The application is done entirely online, and may be accessed only by using the code included in the letter to the high school principal. Students and parents alike agonize over delays in gaining access to the secret code and hence the application. Once the student finally obtains the login details from the high school principal, the application is quite straightforward. The student is required to write a short essay about, perhaps, a person or experience that influenced him or her. The student must also list extracurricular activities, honors, employment, etc.

One additional requirement is that the student submit a “confirming” SAT score. Traditionally, an SAT score of 1960 is sufficient to “confirm” the student’s PSAT score. The confirming score is not the student’s actual SAT score, however. It is based on a unique calculation of the student’s Math subscore plus the Critical Reading subscore plus a Writing Skills score calculated by multiplying the student’s Writing Skills multiple choice score by 10.

Meanwhile, the student’s guidance counselor should be hard at work completing his or her half of the application requiring the principal’s endorsement of the student, a recommendation letter for the student, courses and grades for the first three years of high school, and an evaluation of the student’s course rigor, academic achievement, extracurricular accomplishments and personal character and qualities. The completed applications are due in October.

After the application is submitted, the waiting game begins again. Sometime in February, 1000 students will receive letters at their home addresses advising them that they are not advancing to Finalist. Their high school principal is also notified. Throughout February, checking the mailbox is a stressful ordeal, not only for students whose high school grades leave much to be desired, but also for the 4.0 student who worries that his course load was too light, or wonders if his guidance counselor might have written a not-so-good recommendation. Anxious mailbox stalking continues until good news arrives for the 15,000 students who will become Finalists.

The 1000 who do not advance in the competition are now “Permanent Semifinalists.” Anecdotal evidence from online forums indicates that these 1000 students often had low grades in high school. One D or a couple of Cs, even if those grades were earned freshman year, is enough to knock a student out of the competition. Other students with such grades, however, do progress to Finalist. Perhaps a compelling essay, an unusually rigorous course load, or a convincing recommendation from the guidance counselor, tips the scales.

Naming Your First Choice College. Once the 15,000 Semifinalists have been selected, decisions must be made as to which students will receive official Merit Scholarship awards. Students may log on to the NMSC website and enter the name of their first choice college or may choose “undecided.” By the deadline, however, at the end of May (or earlier for some colleges), students should have named their first choice college. Otherwise, they will not be eligible for a college-sponsored Merit Scholarship award.

National Merit Scholars. Of the 15,000 Finalists, approximately 7,600 will become National Merit Scholars. It is perhaps this moniker that is most confusing, as often the term National Merit Scholar is used for all students earning Commended Student, Semifinalist or Finalist status. In fact, National Merit Scholar is a specific designation reserved for only those Finalists who are awarded an official Merit Scholarship award. The great news, however, is that this recognition is in the hands of the student.

Official Merit Scholarship awards derive from three sources. The first source, the NMSC itself, awards $2500 scholarships. The second source is corporations, which award approximately 1000 scholarships, usually to children of employees. Currently there are about 240 corporate sponsors. The third source, and the one that is in the hands of the students, is colleges and universities. Approximately 200 colleges and universities, eager to enroll National Merit Finalists, offer official Merit Scholarship awards to 4000 students each year.

National Competition? What Do You Think? Each year, as the online forums buzz with news of the PSAT cutoff scores needed to progress to Semifinalist in each state, the National Merit naysayers complain about the broad range of qualifying scores. It does not seem fair that a 202 in Wyoming can become a National Merit Scholar, earning a 4-year full ride to college, while a 224 in New Jersey is out of the competition at the Commended Student level. The competition is not, say the naysayers, “national”.

As a parent myself, in a state with a traditionally high PSAT cutoff score, I understand the frustration. The NMSC, however, is a private non-profit corporation, and is free to set rules as it sees fit. It is, after all, giving away money to lots of students, which is much better than not giving away money, right? The competition is “national” in that each state is awarded a number of Semifinalists based on that state’s share of graduating seniors. The more graduating seniors in a state, the more Semifinalists that state will have. When all PSATs are graded, and listed from highest to lowest scores, a line is drawn at the score that will most nearly result in the correct number of Semifinalists from each individual state. Each state is equally represented on a per capita basis.

Many believe a more fair process would provide one nationwide Semifinalist cutoff score, but that would result in a greater number of Semifinalists from the high-scoring states. New Jersey, California and Massachusetts would be brimming with Semifinalists, and ultimately, therefore, National Merit Scholars, while certain other states would have few. And that, in my mind, would not result in a truly “national” competition.

The Parent’s Role in the National Merit Scholarship Competition. While hand-wringing is an excellent place to start, I have some other ideas. Stay tuned for the next installment.

Vocabulary: Still Confused? If you are gearing up for the National Merit Scholarship competition, you might as well learn the lingo.

NMSC. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a private non-profit entity that runs the National Merit Scholarship competition.

College Board. Administers the PSAT/NMSQT. Don’t confuse College Board with NMSC. They are separate entities.

PSAT/NMSQT. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. Those in the know just call it the PSAT.

Commended Students. Students who score above the national cutoff score for Commended status, but below the state score needed to advance to Semifinalist.

National Merit Semifinalists. 16,000 students who meet the cutoff scores needed in their states to advance in the competition. In other words, the top scoring students in each state..

Permanent Semifinalists. Approximately 1000 Semifinalists who do not progress to Finalist.

National Merit Finalists. 15,000 students who advance from Semifinalist in their senior year.

National Merit Scholar. Any Finalist who receives an official Merit Scholarship award from the NMSC, a corporate sponsor, or a college sponsor.

Merit Scholarship award. One of the three types of official Merit scholarships awarded as part of the National Merit Scholarship competition. The three types are the National Merit $2500 scholarship awarded from the NMSC, corporate-sponsored awards, and college-sponsored awards. These awards should not be confused with the additional scholarship packages offered to National Merit Finalists by many colleges. When a large package is offered by a college or university, it usually consists of a small official Merit Scholarship award, for example $2500 over 4 years, as well as additional scholarship funds available to Finalists.