Courting Merit Scholars Opens Door to Questions

Ann McClure's picture
Thursday, December 13, 2012

An introductory course here in American government offers the kind of intimate, interactive learning that scholars prize: just 20 students, most of them freshmen, debating the merits of the Senate filibuster one recent morning, and parrying pointed questions from a professor who knew their names.

Small colleges specialize in this style of learning, but this is the University of Oklahoma, the kind of large institution where most students enrolled in lower-level courses are more likely to be listening to lectures than taking part in discussions. Adding to the course’s cachet is a professor who brings rare authority to the subject: David L. Boren, the university president and a former governor and United States senator.

But a great majority of the university’s students do not have access to this course, or dozens of others like it. Mr. Boren’s class is part of Oklahoma’s honors program, and most of the students in it are National Merit Scholarship winners.

This month, 1.5 million high school juniors will receive their scores on the Preliminary SAT exam, the first step toward learning whether they will belong to that sliver — about one-half of 1 percent of students who take the test — who will win National Merit Scholarships. Of those who do, a striking number will be taking classes here two years from now.

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