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Bad SAT scores? Low GPA? The College Board has just the scholarship for you

The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, is launching a $25 million scholarship program intended to help students at the bottom of the class as much it does the valedictorians.

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The College Board, the nonprofit that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, is launching a $25 million scholarship program intended to help students at the bottom of the class as much it does the valedictorians.

College Board President David Coleman told USA TODAY the new College Board Opportunity Scholarship has no minimum grade-point average or SAT score requirement.

Instead, students become eligible for scholarships by working their way through a checklist of essential steps in the college application process – such as building a list of schools they’re interested in attending, practicing for the SAT, improving their scores and filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

The program is intended to nudge more students, particularly low-income youth who might fear that college is financially out of reach, to apply for college. Half of the scholarships will be set aside for students whose families earn less than $60,000 annually.

All U.S. high school students – including undocumented immigrants – are eligible for the scholarships.

“We’re in a very, very dangerous situation in this country, where many students don’t see college as part of their future,” Coleman said in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY. “A college education is so important to future success – future economic success.”

Indeed, Americans are increasingly questioning whether the cost of education is worth it. Forty-nine percent of Americans surveyed last year said they believed earning a four-year degree will lead to a good job and higher lifetime earnings, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Forty-seven percent said they didn’t.

Just 37 percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 agreed a four-year degree was worth the cost. Fifty-seven percent disagreed.

At the same time, U.S. colleges are inching toward a pivot point as millennials, who flooded university campuses over the last decade, are aging out of their college years.

U.S. birthrates dipped after the Great Recession of a decade ago. That means that by 2026, when the “front edge” of the recession birth dearth are ready to head to campus, the number of college-aged students is projected to drop almost 15 percent in just five  years, according to economist Nathan Grawe.

For each of the next five years, the College Board says it will award 600 scholarships of $500 to students for building a college list, 1,500 scholarships worth $1,000 for practicing for the SAT, 150 scholarships worth $2,000 for improving SAT scores, 400 scholarships worth $500 for strengthening college lists, 800 scholarships for completing the FAFSA and 500 scholarships worth $1,000 for applying for college.

Students become eligible for the scholarships through monthly drawings as they work their way through the checklist.

The College Board says it will award at least 25 scholarships worth $40,000 to students who complete all six steps on the checklist.

Only a tiny fraction of high school students considering college will win one of the nearly 20,000 scholarships the College Board plans to award.

Nicole Hurd, CEO of College Advising Corps, says the program’s greatest value might be in pushing students and their families to take steps – such as filling out FAFSA – that could help make the path to college more affordable.

The high school class of 2017 left as much as $2.3 billion in federal grant money for college on the table by not completing or submitting the FAFSA, according to financial website NerdWallet

“The beauty of what the College Board is actually doing is incentivizing families to make decisions that are in their financial benefit,” Hurd says.

Barbara Gill is associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland. She says many low-income students, even the highest achieving ones, are so daunted by the sticker price of a four-year institution that they don’t even apply.

The dynamic leads many high-achieving, low-income students to enroll in cheaper less selective colleges.

“Those students would benefit from setting their sights higher,” Gill says. “That’s why this scholarship program is attractive.”

The College Board has come under renewed scrutiny from advocates of minority students, who say its standardized tests are biased against blacks, Latinos and Native Americans and are in part to blame for keeping many out of the nation’s elite universities.

In recent years, dozens of small liberal arts colleges – and a few first-tier research universities – have made submitting standardized testing scores optional.

In June, the University of Chicago, which came in third in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent national university rankings, announced it was making the standardized tests optional for applicants. It became the first elite American university to diminish the importance of the SAT, as well as the competing ACT, in its admission process.

Seventy percent of Asian test takers and 59 percent of whites last year achieved the reading and writing and mathematics benchmarks on the SAT – the level the College Board says indicates a student is likely to have success in certain college courses. Twenty percent of black test takers, 31 percent of Latinos and 27 percent of Native Americans reached the benchmarks.

Coleman pushes back against the notion that the scholarship program was intended to burnish the College Board’s brand at a moment when it is taking lumps in the academic world.

“More students are taking these exams than ever before,” he says.

“But I really care about that much, much less than the bigger problem we face, which is that there are so many kids that aren’t engaged. The sad truth about high school is that too many kids pull themselves out of the running and don’t think they’ll ever make it to college.”

Coleman says the College Board has spent years developing the scholarship program.

Priscilla Rodriguez, the organization’s executive director for scholarship strategy, says it held focus groups with students in New York City public schools and in Oakland, California, and surveyed thousands of students, parents and college counselors around the country.

College Board officials thought that students’ and parents’ primary focus would be on the scholarship money.

Instead, they say, many students surveyed – particularly seniors who were in the midst of the college application process – were as interested in how the program could be used as a tool to navigate some of the more opaque corners of the application process.

“There was some tough emotional reflection from students saying, ‘I wish I had known,’ ” Rodriguez says. “It really reaffirmed that there are so many students that don’t have a plan.”

Read more from USA Today.