The Importance of Prestigious Scholarships

Submitted on 2011/11/16 at 10:36 am

How important are prestigious post-graduate scholarships to the process of evaluating honors programs?

The purpose of a strong honors program is to give the brightest students the best possible education so that the students can achieve at a level commensurate with their high ability. The nation’s leading private universities excel at producing Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Fulbright, Gates, and Churchill scholars, and the academic world associates excellence in academic achievement with the attainment of these prestigious awards. If strong public honors programs hope to make good on the promise of an elite-level education within a large state university, then one measure should be the number of high-profile awards won by students at these universities.

The University of Illinois leads the universities listed among our fifty in awards for Gates Cambridge Scholars and Churchill Scholars. The 90 annual Gates Cambridge awards can be won by students in almost any field of study, but the majority appear to go to scholars in the STEM subjects, education, public health, and law or criminal justice. The Churchill Scholarships, also for study at Cambridge, are only for students in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The Churchill Scholarship is valued at $45,000 to $50,000. The Gates Scholarship has about the same value, but it can be granted for the length of time necessary for the degree sought, usually no more than three years (Ph.D).

The University of Virginia ranks first among the fifty in the extremely prestigious Rhodes Scholars category. The University of North Carolina ranks ahead of UT Austin and the University of Virginia in Truman Scholars. Truman scholarships have a value of up to $30,000. Recipients must be “change agents” who will work in government, non-profit, or educational organizations for at least three of the first seven years after completion of a Truman-funded degree. About 60 scholarships are awarded annually, and usually each state has at least one resident who is a recipient. The recipient does not have to be a student at the university within the state of residence, but most are. Seventeen of the fifty universities in our guidebook are Truman Scholarship Honor Institutions, and all over-perform in the scholarship rankings.

The ranking guide to be published in the Spring of 2012 also considers Fulbright awards, although the measure for that award is not in raw numbers but in a proportional figure based on the size of a given university’s undergraduate population. The University of Michigan, however, not only ranks first in the number of Fulbrights granted but also ranks first even after the university’s sizable undergraduate population is taken into account. UCLA and Wisconsin rank second and third, respectively, after raw numbers are adjusted for the size of the undergraduate population.

So does this mean that universities outside the orbit of public elites will not rank highly in the prestigious scholarship category? Actually, the category is most useful in assessing these other universities, especially the extent to which they “over-perform” in relation to their overall ranking in U.S. News or elsewhere. For example, there are universities among the fifty who rank 100 or lower in the U.S. News survey but rank in the top half of the fifty we are reviewing in the prestigious scholarship category. Kansas, Nebraska, Arizona, and Arizona State are examples.

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