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Opinion: Georgia sanctions grade inflation by giving boost to STEM students to keep HOPE

I recently wrote about a new law in Georgia designed to help college students majoring in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- to retain their HOPE Scholarships, which require a 3.0 grade point average.

Passed in 2016, the law adds 0.5 of GPA value to a B, C or D in approved STEM classes for the purposes of calculating the HOPE GPA. The law didn't kick in until now because the state had to determine which classes ought to receive the boost. (The eligible courses are listed under each institution's name.)

Rick Diguette is a frequent Get School contributor on higher ed issues. He is a local writer who retired from college teaching earlier this year. In a column today, he contends the new law essentially allows grade inflation and questions the implications.

By Rick Diguette

Jan Jones, speaker pro-tempore of Georgia’s House of Representatives, kept hearing how hard it was for Georgia Tech students to maintain HOPE, the state’s merit-based, lottery-funded scholarship now in its 24th year of existence.  Jones wanted to help college STEM majors and also encourage more graduating high school seniors to consider majoring in STEM.

So she sponsored House Bill 801, which this AJC education blog dubbed the “Rambling Wrecktification” bill, and persuaded her colleagues in both chambers to pass it unanimously. Beginning this academic year, the legislation adds .5 points to B, C and D grades earned in math, science, technology and engineering courses taken at public and private colleges and universities in Georgia for the purpose of HOPE grade point calculations.

HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) was originally the brainchild of then Gov. Zell Miller.  In 1992, he convinced a majority of the state’s voters to approve a constitutional amendment creating a state lottery, the proceeds from which would support a number of laudable education initiatives.  Since 1993, in excess of $9 billion in lottery proceeds have been distributed to about 1.7 million Georgia scholarship recipients.

To be eligible for a HOPE Scholarship, which covers about 80 percent of tuition costs, high school grads must have at least a 3.0 GPA and maintain that in college.  The more lucrative Zell Miller HOPE Scholarship pays 100 percent of tuition.  That requires a 3.7 high school GPA, which can’t fall below 3.3 once the student enrolls in a degree program.  But as many students can attest, that’s easier said than done.  And once HOPE is lost, it can take up to a year or more to get it back.  Hence the complaints from students at Georgia Tech, and no doubt their parents, where in-state residents now pay $27,970 annually to attend and live on campus.

In fairness to Jones, Georgia’s Legislature and Gov. Deal, there is concern in some quarters the U.S. is not producing enough STEM majors to meet job market demand.  The results of two recent studies published in the Journal of Labor Economics see a correlation between merit-based state scholarship programs like Georgia’s HOPE and the effect they have on students’ decisions regarding a major.  The authors, David L. Sjoquist of Georgia State University and John V. Winters of Oklahoma State, conclude that in those states where students are eligible for merit-based scholarships, they are significantly less likely to pursue and earn a STEM degree.

But as the authors of  “STEM crisis or STEM surplus? Yes and yes” note, the U.S. job market is subject to both STEM shortages and surpluses.  It all depends on how a STEM occupation is defined.  Does it only refer to computer programming and engineering, or does it also include other occupations in the fields of medicine, blue-collar manufacturing, and some of the skilled trades?

Just how many STEM courses at Georgia’s public and private colleges and universities are now eligible for extra points?  A lot more than you might think.  Atlanta’s Emory University leads the way among the state’s private institutions with 149, while the University of Georgia in Athens tops the list of public institutions with 147.

Make no mistake, courses like Calculus III, Organic Chemistry, and Principles of Physics are potential GPA killers.  These are typically sophomore level courses with significant prerequisites.  But at some of Georgia’s four-year colleges and universities, students also earn that extra .5 points for basic freshman math and science courses.  And at Kennesaw State University, even Machining and Welding is eligible for the grade point boost to hang onto HOPE.

This new policy is seriously flawed for a number of reasons.  For one, it is impossible to view this as anything but institutionalized grade inflation.  How else to explain giving students a half letter grade boost to their HOPE GPA for doing less than exemplary work?

As for A students ― those whose outstanding academic performance was the rationale for HOPE in the first place ― House Bill 801 takes their efforts entirely for granted.  Looks like excellence will just have to be its own reward going forward.

The law also seems to imply that professors teaching STEM courses in Georgia’s public and private colleges and universities can’t be trusted, or lack the expertise, to make an accurate assessment of their students’ performance in relation to whether they merit retaining their HOPE Scholarships. That this is a determination no Legislature is qualified to make would seem to be beyond question, except here in Georgia.

It is also worth pointing out that scholarship has two very different meanings.  The word refers to knowledge gained from applied study in a particular field or discipline, as well as to financial aid awarded to a student.  This new HOPE GPA booster law effectively ignores the first definition out of deference to the second.

Do we really want Georgia’s future engineers, computer programmers, physicians, machinists, lab technicians, and even welders to be associated with a law that bailed them out when they couldn’t make the grade?  I guess some people are okay with that, or maybe they never gave it a thought.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.