TEMPE - The value of the AIMS scholarship was cut Thursday from a full tuition waiver to 25 percent of tuition at the state's three universities by the Arizona Board of Regents.

The Regents High Honors Endorsement, known as the AIMS scholarship, is funded by student tuition dollars. The state doesn't financially support the program.

The cost of the program has ballooned in its four years, in part because more Arizona students qualify for the award and because the tuition price tag has increased. Students have three tries to pass the AIMS test, a state exam that students must pass to graduate from high school in Arizona.

In 2008, about 5,500 students used the scholarships to attend one of the three state universities, at a cost of $27.5 million.

Last year, the program cost $44.1 million and covered 8,400 students.

"I see us between a rock and a hard place. I don't want to change the AIMS scholarship, but I don't see the budget there that allows it to remain the way it is," said Regent Ernest Calderon. 

The vote was 9-1 with state schools Superintendent Tom Horne against the changes.

The board's vote destroys the incentive for students to work hard and for parents to push their students to excel, Horne said.

The AIMS scholarship was a strong incentive for students who otherwise wouldn't have gone to college, said Stephanie Friend, a board member of the Educational Enrichment Foundation. Additionally, it kept a lot of high-achieving students in state instead of going to college out of state, she said.

"They might as well just take it away completely. The 25 percent won't be enough to make any difference at all," Friend said.

Horne said he hopes the governor will select new regents who will help overturn these changes before they can take effect in 2013.

Many of the regents agreed state taxpayers should help cover the cost of the program in the future, perhaps restoring it to full tuition.

"It's time for the state to step up and create a fund to do this," said Regent Mark Killian.

Who's affected

The changes apply beginning with this year's high school sophomores. They will be college freshmen in the fall of 2013.

The earlier requirements - to exceed standards on the AIMS test, get A and B grades in 16 core classes and have a 3.5 or better grade point average - still apply.

Additionally, students will now have to score in the 90th percentile on other exams, an ACT score of at least 28 or an SAT1 score of at least 1300.

"If you do that, you truly deserve high honor," said Regent Rick Myers. "It's important that we set bars so people are striving for the right thing."

Many won't make the cut.

If the changes had been applied to this year's freshman class at the University of Arizona, 313 students would have qualified and 655 would not, said Melissa Vito, UA vice president for student affairs.

The scholarship is renewable at the same dollar amount, even if tuition increases, for four years.

Top students could qualify for additional scholarships awarded at the discretion of each university. At the UA, merit scholarships range from a free computer to an $8,000 scholarship.

University leaders said they will spend the savings from this cut on financial aid for needy students.

"We are probably placing a ceiling on some students' dreams," said Calderon, the regent. But he added he is hopeful that the universities will spend the savings from this cut on helping other students pay for college. 

"Our goal is not to have less people get money," Vito said. "Our goal is to ultimately be able to spread money further."

"We hope that there will be accountability and oversight to ensure that happens. This should not be a cut to financial aid, this should just be a reallocation of those funds," said Emily Fritze, UA student president.

Who's not affected

Current Arizona high school juniors and seniors will be grandfathered in under the earlier AIMS scholarship rules.

Changes don't apply to college students who have received and are using an AIMS scholarship.

The high school class of 2006 was the first to receive AIMS scholarships.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 807-8012.