This summer, Zachary Schwarzkopf spent five weeks at Morehead State University in the prestigious Governor's Scholars Program. In addition to enrichment classes in civics, economics and leadership, the program provides a huge perk: a $40,000 Presidential Scholarship to the University of Kentucky, provided you have a 28 ACT score and a grade-point average of 3.3.
That's what Schwarzkopf and 1,100 other rising seniors were told when they applied to the program and what many heard at a college fair this summer. But a few weeks later they found out that UK had changed its requirements for the Governor's Scholars Program, or GSP, and the Governor's School for the Arts.
Now, to get the same scholarship, governor's scholars who enter college in 2016 will have to score at least 31 on the ACT and have a 3.5 GPA. If they fall short, the students will get a $1,500 annual scholarship, as opposed to $10,000.
To Schwarzkopf and many others, it feels like UK changed the rules midgame.
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"It will be a grueling process to get those three points, and there are only three more chances to take the test before you apply to college," said Schwarzkopf, a rising senior at Warren Central High School in Bowling Green.
In protest, he put up a petition on Change.org asking UK to apply the old requirements to his class. More than 4,200 people have signed the petition, including numerous past governor's scholars.
Nicole Childress of Crestwood wrote that while she has a 31 ACT score, that says little about student quality.
"That's because GSP looks at much more than a number, and UK should, too," she wrote on the petition. "UK needs to realize by upping the ACT requirement to a 31 they are excluding some of the most wonderful leaders I have ever met and degrading the achievement of GSP."
Lisa Schawe of Dry Ridge noted that while the point of the program was to keep Kentucky's best and brightest in the commonwealth, "it seems as though UK is discouraging them from becoming assets to this university."
"GSP Scholars are exceptional and bright young people who have worked a tremendous amount to be able to attend the GSP Program," Schawe wrote. "The new ACT standard is a slap in the face to the individual students and to the GSP program as a whole."
Officials with the Governor's Scholars Program did not respond to calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The program was started by Kentucky lawmakers in 1983 because of concern that too many top students were leaving the state. Still funded in part by the General Assembly, GSP now serves about 1,000 rising seniors on three college campuses each summer.
The Governor's School for the Arts is a similar program for students in the performing arts.
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said the school makes changes to its scholarship programs at the same time each year, working a year ahead. The UK scholarship website made clear this summer that scholarships were under review.
Others receiving Presidential Scholarships already must meet the higher requirements, and UK wanted to make the standards uniform for all students, Blanton said. The requirements also have changed for UK's top award, the Singletary Scholarship. To receive that award, which covers tuition, housing and books, students will need a 33 on the ACT, up from 31, and a 3.8 GPA, up from 3.5.
Savings from the changes will allow the university to shift more of its resources to financial aid programs that are based on need, which will help more students attend and finish UK, Blanton said.
"Financial need is one of the chief reasons a student returns or doesn't return," Blanton said. "As we invest more in scholarships, we do want to meet more financial need, and that requires some changes in the mix."
One possibility, Blanton said, would be to create a program that provides small grants, such as $1,000, "which could mean the difference between someone staying in school or leaving."
That's a change in direction for UK.
In 2001, then-President Lee T. Todd Jr. announced that all students who attended the Governor's Scholars Program and the Governor's School for the Arts would get full-tuition scholarships to UK. The move was aimed at keeping Kentucky's smartest students in the state, and raising UK's student quality and boosting its national rankings.
Under President Eli Capilouto, UK has raised its scholarship funding to more than $100 million. But the vast majority of that money has gone to merit-based scholarships, which generally reward high test scores. While some of those awards also might address financial need, only 4 percent of UK's institutional aid is need-based.
It's unclear how much money UK would save on the move. In past years, 300 to 400 students from the Governor's Scholars Program have picked UK. That's roughly $16 million in awards. But many students might meet the higher requirements, and it's not known how many would accept the $1,500 award instead.
Blanton said about half of the governor's scholar students who are expected to attend this fall scored a 31 or higher on the ACT. The rest of the scores ranged from 28 to 30.
UK's loss might be other universities' gain. Nearly all of Kentucky's private and public universities offer some kind of scholarship to governor's scholars. The University of Louisville, Morehead State University, Murray State University and Northern Kentucky University offer full tuition to GSP and Governor's School for the Arts students who meet certain other academic requirements. None of them requires a 31 ACT score.
Bobby Clark, whose daughter attended the Governor's Scholars Program at Morehead this summer, said he agreed that UK should grandfather in next year's freshman class because when they applied and attended GSP, the students understood the requirement to be a 28 ACT score.
"To change the rules in the middle of the game seems unfair," Clark said. "I'm glad they're looking at need-based, but from an equity standpoint, they ought to grandparent in this year's class."
Blanton said he was sorry if anyone received incorrect information.
"What UK is trying to do — and what we have a moral obligation to do — is continually find ways to strike the right balance between academic scholarships, which are critically important, and financial need, which is perhaps the chief factor in determining whether a student goes to college and, as importantly, whether they stay," he said.