CULLOWHEE -- Western Carolina University has become only the fourth institution of higher education in North Carolina to be designated an official college sponsor of National Merit Scholars.
The designation this week by the National Merit Scholarship Corp. places Western alongside Davidson College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University as the only institutions authorized to offer National Merit Scholarships out of a total of 59 four-year colleges and universities in the state.
Announcement of the National Merit Scholar sponsorship successfully concludes one chapter of an ambitious effort announced by Western Chancellor John Bardo in 1996 to vaporize myths about the quality of Western's academic programs and to "raise the bar" of the university's academic standards.
Bardo's plan included earning designation as a National Merit sponsoring university by the year 2001, which required enrolling at least three National Merit finalists annually for at least four consecutive years. A total of 21 National Merit finalists have enrolled at Western since 1996, and six more have applied to Western for the coming fall semester.
"With Western's continued efforts to not only increase our enrollment but also to enhance the academic caliber of our students, National Merit sponsorship status is yet another indicator for well-prepared students to identify Western as the higher education institution at which to pursue their undergraduate studies," Bardo said.
Western's scholarship package for National Merit Scholars covers in-state tuition, mandatory fees, room, board and a computer. The first three college-sponsored National Merit awards from WCU will be given to new freshmen in the fall 2000 semester.
Approximately 1.1 million students from 20,000 high schools across the nation enter the National Merit Scholarship competition annually on the basis of scores on the Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, taken in October of the junior year. About 15,000 of those students are designated semifinalists in September of the senior year.
By February of the senior year, 14,000 semifinalists advance to become finalists based on SAT score, academic performance, extracurricular activities, achievements, and endorsement of teachers and principals. About 7,000 finalists are awarded scholarships under the auspices of the National Merit Scholarship Corp.
According to the National Merit Scholarship Corp., finalists are the highest scorers on qualifying tests and represent less than one percent of each state's high school seniors.
"National Merit finalists are the cream of the crop academically, students who are sought after by the best colleges and universities in the United States," said Phil Cauley, WCU director of admissions. "Since Western embarked four years ago on an effort to recruit the best students in the state -- including National Merit Scholarship finalists, high school valedictorians and other high-achieving students -- we have seen that their presence in our classrooms has had an important impact on the student body as a whole. These students have been the core around which we have been 'raising the bar' and expanding academic expectations for all students."