From left to right: Dr. Michael L. Lomax, UNCF president and CEO; Timothy E. McGuire, National Merit Scholarship Corporation president; Mrs. Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and former U.S. Sen. Charles Robb; and Cheryl Smith, UNCF senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, who was a National Achievement Scholarship recipient.
For 50 years, the National Achievement Scholarship Program has provided scholarships to top Black high school students across the country looking to attend college. The award, created on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, sought to encourage African-American students to pursue their educational goals.
“The program was created a half century ago as they were beginning to integrate” public education and other traditionally held vestiges of segregation in this country, said Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, who added that the message sent by the signing of the Civil Rights Act was a sign that “the nation [was] going to integrate [and] close the door on discrimination and education is going to be” the driving force behind that effort.
But as the program celebrates its 50th anniversary, its trustees have decided to transition the program from one that honors accomplishment in high school to one that rewards college completion.
“Because of funding, because of sponsorship, because of where we are in the program — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the program — it was time to make a change and we wanted to transition to a program that focuses on college graduates instead of high school students,” said Timothy McGuire, president of the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
The resulting scholarship is the UNCF Achievement Capstone Program, which pulls in the United Negro College Fund as administrators of the funds.
The UNCF Achievement Capstone Program “is really designed to carry on the name and legacy of the National Achievement Scholarship Program, which in 1964 focused specifically on African-Americans,” McGuire said. In keeping with the original intent to award African-American students looking to further their education, the new scholarship will be available to African-American students attending historically Black or predominantly Black colleges and universities across the country.
Beginning in early 2016, institutions will be asked to nominate a student whose academic designation is cum laude or higher to receive the one-time award ranging between $2,000 and $5,000. The capstone award is intended to pay down student debt or provide a leg up towards graduate school expenses. Scholars will also be inducted into a Capstone Scholar alumni community, which Lomax said will provide “support, encouragement and [reinforcement of] what we’re trying to do, which is [to promote] retention and graduation. One of the features of everything that we do now is [to] create a sense of community.”
As Lomax added: “I think for me, what is incredible is [beginning] to think about incenting completion, and you incent completion by beginning to think about what the rewards are. Very infrequently do [high-achieving students] get any financial recognition [for their achievements].”