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In past years, freshmen entering the University of Utah with a 3.8 high school grade-point average, an ACT score of 31, participation in three varsity sports and hundreds of hours of community service were almost shoo-ins to receive a merit scholarship given by the U. for academic excellence.

Not any more.Superior academic credentials from an increasing number of applicants have pushed the eligibility cutoff to its highest point ever for the two universitywide merit scholarships - U. Presidential scholarships and Honors-at-Entrance scholarships.

To even be considered for one of the 50 Presidential scholarships, an entering freshman must possess an index score of 132-140. The U. uses an index - a combination of GPA and ACT scores - to rate students applying for admission. The 132-140 range translates into at least a high school GPA of 3.9 and a 32 ACT score or 1,340 SAT score.

The average U. freshman has a 22.8 ACT. The statewide average for high school seniors is 20.3, while a perfect score is 36. For SAT scores, 1,600 is a perfect score. The average U. freshman has a 2.65 high school GPA.

The Presidential scholarship hopefuls with such high index scores possess stellar academic qualifications that could secure them slots at Harvard or Stanford universities, U. President Arthur K. Smith told the U. Board of Trustees Monday.

The 180 Honors-at-Entrance scholarships, which include those designated for the top scholar at each of the state's 120 high schools, require a 131 index score. That could be a 4.0 high-school GPA and a 30 ACT score or a 3.9 GPA and a 31 ACT score.

There is another universitywide scholarship, the Utah Achievement Award, which is awarded on the basis of high-school leadership, and the academic requirements aren't as steep for it. A number of U. departments award merit scholarships to outstanding students in their particular fields. A math student, for example, might have a perfect ACT score of 36 in math and a lower 28 in English but would still be eligible for a specific departmental merit scholarship, said U. Dean of Students Normand L. Gibbons.

The Presidential scholarships provide a full tuition waiver and a $750 stipend. The scholarship is renewable if the student maintains a 3.7 GPA at the U. An Honors-at-Entrance scholarship also includes a full tuition waiver but no stipend. It, too, is renewable with a 3.7 GPA.

Even with such sterling standards, the U. has found a tremendous increase in merit scholarship applicants for fall '92. Smith said there has been a 42 percent increase in Presidential scholarship applicants. A pool of 180 applicants will compete for the 50 scholarships.

There are 1,180 applicants vying for the 180 Honors-at-Entrance scholarships - a 50 percent increase in one year, Smith said.

Gibbons said the trend to higher academic credentials began four or five years ago. Then Honors-at-Entrance scholarship winners had ACT scores of 24 or 25.

Gibbons attributed increasing qualifications to several factors. The U. toughened its admissions standards five years ago, thus requiring more of its entering freshmen and raising the level of performance, he said.

Additionally, with the rising costs of tuition nationwide, many superior students who in the past might have gone to the nation's Ivy League schools may now be electing to stay closer to home where a college degree is more affordable, Gibbons said.

The U. president said the superior qualifications have him a little worried. "My concern is not the quality of the applicants. I'm delighted as any university president would be. I'm concerned we're going to have a public relations problem."

Smith said he anticipates receiving lots of angry letter from parents whose children have outstanding academic qualifications yet don't receive merit scholarships. They may be particularly upset if there are siblings who were awarded merit scholarships in past years with lower qualifications, he said.

"I wish we had more scholarship money in those categories, but scholarship money is limited," Smith said.