By David Porreca UI officials believe that a new merit scholarship program will help attract some of the nation's brightest undergraduates - students who might go elsewhere for lack of merit-based financial aid. The James Newton Matthews Scholars Program - named after the UI's first student, who enrolled in 1868 - will offer $1,500 scholarships to incoming freshmen who have demonstrated outstanding academic achievement in high school. The first 10 to 15 scholarships are expected to be awarded during the 1995-96 academic year, according to Linda E. Jones, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and director of development. Fund raising for the Matthews scholarships is part of the university's $1 billion Campaign Illinois. Development officials have set a goal of building a $5 million endowment for the Matthews program. Once in place, the endowment would allow the UI to provide achievement scholarships to 40 recipients in each undergraduate class, Jones said. Students with exceptional academic achievement planning to enroll in any of the colleges on the Urbana-Champaign campus would be eligible for consideration for the program. Recipients who maintain a 4.4 grade-point average would be eligible to reapply for the scholarships each year. For the time being, however, the Matthews program is still in its early stages. The first financial contributions were made this summer, Jones said, and most of the fund-raising efforts lie ahead. Several details also remain to be worked out, such as the specific number of scholarships to be offered this year. A committee to deal with the nuts and bolts of the program is being formed by Patricia E. Askew, interim vice chancellor for student affairs. But while building a $5 million endowment is no easy task, Jones said she's optimistic about the program's appeal to potential donors. To begin with, she said, the scholarships will address a real need. Students often cite the availability of scholarships as an important factor in their finial decisions about which university to attend. "We found that we were not as successful as our peer institutions in attracting some of the most highly recruited students, such as National Merit Scholars," Jones said. "When our admissions office surveyed those students (after they decided not to come to the UI), the predominant response was that another school offered them a scholarship, but Illinois didn't. Attracting these students has become a priority, and merit-based scholarships will help make this possible." Specifically, the Matthews program will target students from among three groups of high achievers: National Merit Scholars, students accepted into the UI Campus Honors Program, and highly accomplished out-of-state students. Donors will have the option of targeting their gifts for sponsorship of National Merit Scholars, Campus Honors students, students from a particular state, or students enrolled in a specific college. A gift of $25,000 or more will establish a permanent endowment in the name of the donor. The endowment will fund scholarships in perpetuity. With a gift of that amount, the donor will become a member of the UI Foundation Presidents Council. A gift of $1,500 annually will allow the donor to sponsor a Matthews Scholar. Sponsorship also brings the opportunity for personal interaction with the student. With a gift of that amount for 10 years, the donor will become a member of the Presidents Council. Gifts of any amount designated for the Matthews program will go toward meeting the endowment goal of $5 million. Given the need for a program like the Matthews Scholars and the flexibility it offers potential donors, Jones said she's confident about the ultimate outcome of the fund-raising drive. "My personal feeling is this is going to be very successful," she said. "Alums like helping students. Alums who give to the school do so because they have a lot of pride in the institution. For them to maintain that pride, we've got to continue to attract top-flight students. The Matthews Scholars Program can help us do that."