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Should Georgia lower GPA required to keep HOPE for GaTech students?

Has the HOPE Scholarship -- or rather the fear of losing the generous merit-based aid  -- reduced the number of Georgia students willing to pursue challenging science and math degrees?

That's the suggestion of a new study by researchers at Georgia and Oklahoma State Universities. The study of merit-based scholarship programs in several states including Georgia found: State merit-based scholarships reduce the likelihood a student will earn a degree in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field.

“We find that as a result of these merit aid programs, there was a significant drop in the probability of students majoring in STEM,” said David L. Sjoquist, co-author of the study, professor of economics and affiliated faculty in the Center for State and Local Finance and the Fiscal Research Center in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State.

HOPE pays a large portion of tuition at Georgia's public campuses for high school students who quality. To keep HOPE, students need to maintain a 3.0 average in college. To hold onto the more lucrative Zell Miller Scholarship, students must maintain a 3.30 GPA in college.

I have wondered whether Georgia ought to use the HOPE Scholarship more strategically to increase the number of STEM graduates. Now, tech and science companies import STEM workers or sometimes bypass Georgia because of the shallow pool.

Given Georgia's need to encourage more students to enter the tech, math and science fields, should we re-calibrate HOPE based on a student's major?

Should we penalize an engineering major at Georgia Tech or a biochemistry major at the University of Georgia for slipping to a 2.9 in demanding courses?

Last year, I asked the chancellor of Georgia’s colleges and universities this question: Given the rigor of Georgia Tech courses and the state’s increasing need for math and science talent, should Tech be treated as a special case and the GPA threshold to retain HOPE Scholarships lowered?

Chancellor Hank Huckaby told me, “I don’t know how you deal with that but I understand the argument can be made. I don’t have an answer but it keeps coming up. And that argument is getting louder. It, quite frankly, is something we haven’t addressed yet.”

This new study may raise the volume of that argument:

From GSU this morning:

State merit-based scholarships reduce the likelihood a student will earn a degree in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field, according to researchers at Georgia State University and Oklahoma State University.

Their study, published in the Journal of Labor Economics in October, examined the effect of state merit-based financial aid programs, such as Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, on students’ choice of major.

The results suggest that adopting a strong merit aid program reduces a state’s number of STEM graduates by 6.5 percent, and possibly by as much as 9.1 percent. In addition, the decrease in the likelihood of earning a STEM degree as a result of a strong merit aid program was more dramatic for male students than for female students.

Further analysis is needed to explain why merit aid affects the choice of college major.

If the effect is a result of students’ concern with earning the grade-point average (GPA) necessary to maintain scholarship eligibility, one policy solution would be to lower the GPA requirement for STEM majors.

If high school students avoid courses that would prepare them for STEM majors to maintain eligibility for merit aid, basing their eligibility on SAT or ACT scores could reduce that problem, Sjoquist said.

The researchers considered 27 states that adopted merit-based aid programs between 1991 and 2005, but focused on strong programs in nine states: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. These nine programs are considered strong because of their eligibility criteria, the number of students in the program and the size of the award.

The researchers compared enrollment data of students majoring in STEM subjects before and after merit aid scholarships were adopted in these states. They also made comparisons to states with no merit aid programs and considered the effect of merit aid on non-STEM majors.

Since 1991, more than two dozen American states have adopted merit-based student financial aid programs, which award scholarships to in-state students who meet merit requirements based on high school GPA and sometimes SAT or ACT scores or class rank.

The programs also require students to maintain a certain college GPA to renew the reward. GPA requirements and award values can vary. A goal for these programs is to improve the quality of the state’s workforce by increasing the number of college-educated workers in the state.

Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, adopted in 1993, is among the largest and most notable of the state merit-based financial aid programs in the country.

In another recent study published in the IZA Journal of Labor Economics, the researchers examined student administrative records from the University System of Georgia to determine whether Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship has affected students’ college major decisions.

They found Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship reduced the likelihood of a student earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. There was a 12.6 percent decrease in the number of STEM graduates, with the effects being greater for males. The decline in STEM majors is primarily the result of initial STEM majors switching to another major, according to the study.

Few studies have explored the effect of merit aid on the choice of college major, which has a significant impact on a student’s post-college earnings. Many officials are concerned the United States is not producing enough majors in STEM fields, which are major drivers of innovation and economic growth. Only one-fifth of all college graduates major in a STEM field.

John V. Winters of the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State collaborated on both studies.

To read the first study, “State Merit Aid Programs and College Major: A Focus on STEM,” which examined the effect of state merit aid programs across the United States, go here.

To review the second study, “The Effect of Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship on College Major: A Focus on STEM,” go here.

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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.