NORMAN, Okla. -- 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.
Oklahoma enrolls more National Merit scholars than any other public university in the country, by a wide margin -- about 200 per year, more than the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; and the University of Texas at Austin, combined.
Oklahoma specifically targets National Merit scholars for recruitment, seeing them as a way to raise the university's quality and profile. And while some academic administrators dislike the practice, many of Oklahoma's peers do the same, though not with the same fervor or favors.
At Oklahoma, National Merit scholars are given scholarships based on academic credentials, money to study abroad, housing primarily for high-achieving students, research opportunities, a writing center, priority in choosing some classes, and an Honors College -- a school within a school -- with smaller, more challenging classes.
"We give scholarships for athletic achievement, so why not for academic achievement?" said Mr. Boren, a Yale graduate and former Rhodes scholar. "I want them to get the kind of opportunity at home that they would get in the Ivy League."
In fact, many Honors College students say that they could have gone to the some of the nation's most selective colleges, but came here looking for some of the same experience at a fraction of the price. Thomas Owens, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, said he was accepted to Duke University, where tuition and fees top $55,000. "My family could have managed it," he said, "but this was so much less of a burden, it's amazing."
The university charges $17,087.50 per year for tuition, fees, room and board, for students from Oklahoma, and $28,724.50 for out-of-state students. Officials said the price for National Merit scholars varies, but is less than half as much.
Oklahoma's program touches on a long-running argument within higher education, about the role of "merit aid" -- scholarships that schools give on the basis of credentials like grades, test scores or musical skills -- versus the aid that nearly all schools give on the basis of a student's financial need. Most colleges give some academic merit aid (though some of the wealthiest and most selective schools do not), and the amount has increased over the years as competition for top students grows more fierce. Oklahoma's honors program is an extreme example.
"There are those, me included, who say the purpose of aid should be to help people go to college who might not be able to otherwise," said Donald Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University. "Giving merit scholarships to kids who would have been going to college anyway can benefit the institution without necessarily benefiting the broader public."
The dispute is especially sharp when it comes to state schools, which face dwindling resources and are seen as having a public service mission, but it is largely confined to those who study education policy. Oklahoma's program draws little other fire, on or off campus, even given that about half of the National Merit scholars come from out of state.
"I guess it's a good thing if you get smarter people to come here," said Ashley Blackburn, a sophomore biology major who is not in the honors program. "I don't think anyone resents it. You deserve rewards if you do well."
The National Merit figures are a bragging point for the university and are mentioned repeatedly on its Web site and in its publications. University officials say that attracting top students is worth the added cost and has helped Oklahoma rise in academic rankings over the last generation.
"Having these kinds of classmates motivates other students, it elevates class discussions, it's a recruiting tool when we go after new students or faculty," said David Ray, a political science professor and dean of the Honors College. "We don't just throw money at them to get them here; we give them unique opportunities once they're here."
Oklahoma has plenty of company, among both public and private universities, in giving scholarships to large numbers of students based on National Merit status. Texas A&M University, the University of Southern California and Washington University in St. Louis all do the same. Some top public schools halted the practice in recent years, though many of them still reward academic credentials.
"We decided that basing a big hunk of aid mostly on a single test that people take in 11th grade was too one-dimensional," said Tom Melecki, the director of financial services at the University of Texas at Austin.
After becoming president at Oklahoma 18 years ago, Mr. Boren greatly expanded a small honors program and created the Honors College, which now has about 2,200 students, one-tenth of the university's undergraduate enrollment. Early on, he had the university put a particular emphasis on National Merit scholars, a visible, readily defined elite group, who now make up more than one-third of the Honors College enrollment.
Students must apply for admission to the college and meet a more stringent set of standards to graduate from it. They take about one-quarter of their classes within the college and the rest with the general student body. (Mr. Boren gets a firsthand look at the differences, alternating between teaching the honors version of his government class and a regular version with more than 200 students.)
For the honors students, the results are hard to beat; this year's senior class in Oklahoma's Honors College has winners of the Rhodes, Marshall and Mitchell scholarships.
Jerod Coker, the Marshall scholar, is an economics major who has been accepted to law schools at Berkeley and Duke, and next year he will study at the London School of Economics.
"Paying for private school was out of the question for my family," he said. "The criticism of something like the Honors College might be valid, I don't know, but it's the only way I could have had this kind of experience."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.