The Jefferson Scholars Foundation provides a full tuition scholarship program benefiting select undergraduate and graduate students at The University of Virginia and has been named as one of the two leading scholarship programs in the country. Named after Thomas Jefferson, the University's founder and visionary, the Foundation aims to "identify, attract, and nurture individuals of extraordinary intellectual range and depth who possess the highest qualities of leadership, scholarship, and citizenship." In addition to funding tuition and fees, the scholarship program provides undergraduates with extensive programming including an introductory outdoor weekend, international travel, a summer leadership and citizenship institute, internships and an extensive speaker series. Founded in the 1980-1981 academic year by the Board of Managers of the University of Virginia Alumni Association, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation was a product of the "board’s desire to put in place a tangible program that would reflect the educational ideals of Thomas Jefferson." The first class yielded twelve scholars who graduated in 1985.
In time, the Foundation worked to increase the size of incoming Jefferson Scholar classes. The regional competitions increased from just a few to the 50 that presently exist. The number of nominees has grown to over 900 each year, and volunteer committee participation utilizes roughly 700 U.Va. alumni who participate in the nomination and selection process.
Undergraduate Selection Process
For aspiring Jefferson Scholars, the selection process can be quite rigorous. Students attending one of the more than 3,000 eligible secondary schools in the US must be nominated by their respective institution. Each secondary school is assigned to one of 53 regional areas across the United States which serve to select finalists in the competition. The regional selection process, executed by committees of UVA alumni, varies and can include three levels of selection (an application and up to two interviews) to determine any finalists. These individuals are then brought to Charlottesville for the finalist selection weekend. Students not attending an eligible secondary school or students living outside one of the established regions (including international students) are automatically considered for the finalist weekend based on their UVA application and selected by a separate panel. All finalist expenses for the selection weekend, including travel, are paid for by the Foundation.
In 2009, over 1000 nominations were made by secondary schools; 100 of these students were selected for the finalist weekend.
Usually taking place in March, the finalist weekend is actually an exhaustive four-day experience allowing students the opportunity to exhibit their strengths. While some time is dedicated to informative activities concerning UVA and a specialized tour of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the majority of the weekend is spent on activities where individual merits may be judged. Judges utilize a math & logic exam, a written essay, two sets of faculty moderated panel discussions based on readings provided before the weekend, and a final interview with a panel of judges to select a class. Of the finalists, a class of around 30 students is selected, representing less than 3% of those originally nominated.
Finalists at the selection weekend are guaranteed admission to the University of Virginia regardless of the committee's decision and those not offered a scholarship are provided a smaller, one-time monetary award. The University has seen success in retaining students nominated for (but not awarded) the Jefferson Scholarship. In recent years, approximately nine percent of the incoming first year class were nominees from their respective secondary school.