T.j. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News
Mercedes Pearce, a 19-year-old college graduate, works at Wasatch Therapy to gain clinical physical therapy experience before she returns to school in a couple of years, in Layton, Utah Wednesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mercedes Pearce graduated from college last year, at age 19. She's now working at her first real job and said that she wouldn't trade her current situation for any amount of fun she could have had in high school.

"It saved me so much money in the long run," she said.

Pearce was one of hundreds of students who take on a more rigorous schedule during high school to graduate with an associate degree in hand before ever setting foot on a college campus. Her hard work paid off — the recipient of a New Century Scholarship had the state foot the bill for 75 percent of her remaining higher education. She was lucky to get it done before this year, because thanks to budget constraints, the New Century Scholarship has an uncertain future.

Senators voted Tuesday to pass SB132, which would change the scholarship's provisions. Starting July 1, the New Century Scholarship will be funded on a per year basis. To be eligible, students must graduate with a 3.5 GPA or higher or achieve an ACT score of 26 or higher in situations where a GPA is not available. Students can no longer double-dip into both the New Century Scholarship and the Regents Scholarship, which provides a one-time award of $1,000. Previously, students could claim both, as well as have the summer to complete courses to earn the equivalent associate degree. Under the new measure, the deadline for all materials, including course completion, is shortly after high school graduation dates. The bill now awaits the governor's signature to take effect.

Although 1,998 recipients have been chosen this year and will receive the full amount, no one is sure what will happen next year.

Future recipients might end up getting much less than the 75 percent of their annual tuition that the scholarship was set up to provide and will be lucky to walk away with $1,000 each.

"For this scholarship to stay alive, we had to make changes," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who is co-sponsoring SB132, which modifies some of the provisions of the award and tightens its standards. He said $4 million would be needed to accommodate a 75 percent tuition reimbursement for all of the eligible applicants this year.

"The good news is that students are responding and are working to qualify; the bad news is that it's coming at a time when the state is in real financial difficulty," Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said in a committee meeting earlier in the session. The scholarship, she said, helps prepare students for the rigorous levels of college courses.

With SB132, lawmakers want to emphasize that the Legislature has the flexibility to provide awards based on available funding, just as it was written into the law that first established the scholarship. The original goal of accelerating the college experience is still intact — the new bill only clarifies policies adopted in '99.

For the past 10 years, most of the applicants, who promise to graduate from high school with the equivalent of an associate degree in order to meet the scholarship requirements, have been fully funded. That's what happens in good budget years. But last year, the amount needed for the number of applicants surpassed the amount of money available. Federal stimulus funding was needed to make up for the shortfall and give students what they expected.

Pearce, who only spent one year at Utah State University before she received a bachelor's degree, said she was shocked to learn that her tuition, as well as some of her friends', might not be covered. It sent some kids back to work instead of finishing their degrees.

"I didn't have to pay for any of my college," she said.

This year, lawmakers are trying to curtail such expectations, making sure applicants and their parents know that the state reserves the right to change the amounts they divvy out. The scholarships are also going to be tougher to come by, with eligibility requirements becoming more strict.

"We have made every effort we can to encourage students to look for other options," Buhler told a panel of legislators in February. "We've told them, 'Don't plan on the full amount,' but when something happens year after year, people tend to expect it."

Officials have determined that the solution is to raise the bar.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com