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UW grilled over scholarship changes

CASPER — The University of Wyoming announced significant changes to its financial aid programs earlier this year, including $1 million for need-based aid. But the changes and new system earned UW officials some grilling by one legislator last week.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat who works at the university’s Honors College, lobbied a series of pointed questions at Kyle Moore, the university’s enrollment manager, during a Joint Education Committee meeting Thursday. Moore had just finished walking through changes to the university’s scholarship and financial aid structure, which are now set along a grid defined by a student’s GPA and test scores.

Rothfuss told Moore that, the way he understood the system, certain students who would receive activities scholarship — like those in debate or the Western Thunder Marching Band — would no longer receive those scholarships. Instead, Rothfuss continued, they would just be part of the more general scholarship.

Moore said that yes, there was intent that Wyoming residential students could exceed the maximum merit scholarship established by the new grid.

“How?” Rothfuss asked.

“We’re still fitting a few nuanced pieces of the puzzle,” Moore replied.

“Can I take that as a, ‘Yeah, we’re going to fix that?’” Rothfuss pressed.

Moore hesitated, and Rothfuss instead asked Moore if he could take the concerns back to UW’s board of trustees.

With that concern established, Rothfuss moved on to other critiques.

He noted that the university didn’t have a scholarship to attract top students from outside of Wyoming. He said he understood why the board had changed the scholarship program overall — it was skewed to fund out-of-state, college-bound students who weren’t at the top of their class — but that he worried that UW no longer had a way to attract the best kids from the region.

He described talking to a non-Wyoming student who scored a 35 on his ACT — one point shy of a perfect score — and had clocked a perfect 4.0 GPA. The student had asked Rothfuss what the university could offer him.

“After looking into it and the new scholarship system, I can basically offer the advice to go to a different university that can offer you a total cost of attendance scholarship,” Rothfuss said he told the student, “which we can’t at this point.”

That led to Rothfuss’ third critique: that Wyoming scholarships more richly reward athletic prowess that academic success. He noted that the top merit scholarship a Wyoming resident can earn pays about $16,600 — about $4,000 short of the estimated total cost of attendance for a year at UW. But athletic scholarships, meanwhile, pay the full boat. Plus, he said, top academic students must live on campus with their scholarships, while athletes can live elsewhere.

“So it’s more valuable to be the 38th best running back in the state of Texas graduating from high school than the top student we graduate in a year academically in the state of Wyoming?” Rothfuss asked.

There was silence in the room for a moment. The co-chair of the education committee, Rep. David Northrup, cheerfully chimed in, “Pretty much.”

Moore hesitated again, before handing the mic to Meredith Asay, the university’s point person for dealing with the Legislature. She told the lawmakers that the criticisms were well-taken and would be relayed to the school’s governors.

Acting President Neil Theobald chimed in next, noting that the NCAA sets parameters for athletics scholarships that the university follows.

That didn’t fully satisfy Rothfuss. He acknowledged the NCAA’s rules but questioned whether the university was appropriately rating academics versus athletics.

“There should be a recognition, at least in my view, that it is better to be the kid with the 36 ACT and 4.0 GPA,” he said, “than the 38th best running back.”