Keeping HOPE: Common pitfalls of 1st-year scholarship students

When I interviewed at Clayton State University in the summer of 1994, the president of the university told me that higher education in Georgia was on the verge of a tremendous transformation. In the previous year, Georgia had instituted a scholarship program unlike any other in existence – the HOPE Scholarship. And its impact on higher education was as dramatic as he predicted.

The HOPE Scholarship is the largest state supported merit-based scholarship in the United States. Since its inception, HOPE Scholarships and HOPE Grants total nearly $500 million with 90 million of those dollars going to students from Fayette County. Each year, Georgia awards nearly twice as much in merit scholarships as the next closest state.

I am a skeptic when it comes to most government-sponsored programs. Although the intent may be good, the implementation and outcomes of most programs fall far short of what was anticipated. The HOPE Scholarship is an exception.

As a result of the HOPE, more students than ever before are enrolling in Georgia’s colleges and universities and more of Georgia’s best students are staying in state.

With all this good news, there is one more somber statistic that every student needs to keep in mind as they prepare for college – and that is the proportion of students who lose their eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship in college.

Among all freshmen who enroll with the HOPE Scholarship, only 34 percent retain their eligibility after their first year. In other words, two out of three qualifying students out of high school fail to complete even the first year of college with the required B average.

Among those students who keep HOPE the first year, one out of three will eventually lose their eligibility before graduating. Only 22 percent of all HOPE-eligible freshmen graduate with their scholarship funding intact for their entire college career. According to the HOPE regulations, students who lose their eligibility may regain it at a later date. Unfortunately, fewer than 10 percent of those who lose their eligibility ever regain the funding.

How can this be? How can so few students who graduated with a B average from high school retain this level of proficiency upon entering college? Based on my experience of teaching freshmen level courses, I think there are at least three factors that help to explain this unfortunate phenomenon.

For some, the reason for the academic decline is not related to the classroom but to their ability to maintain self-discipline while living away from home for the first time. With the absence of curfews and the abundance of social activities, some forget why they came to college in the first place. Studying and attending class simply cannot compete with late night parties or just hanging out with friends.

There is a crucial transferal of discipline that needs to happen through the teenage years in order to prepare young adults for life on their own. Parents need to exert less external control so that their children can develop self-control and discipline.

I am not laying this all on the parents, as young people are responsible for the decisions they make. But, I have seen many well-intentioned adults who were so fearful of their children going astray that they never let them develop the maturity they will need once they are living on their own.

Most young people eventually develop the life skills they need, but it does make the transition to college much more difficult if they do not possess that level of maturity their first year away from home.

The second reason that so many students have difficulty maintaining their academic standards in college is because they did not develop the study skills that are necessary in college.

A typical high school class contains a wide range of academic abilities, and teachers must to some extent teach to the middle ground. Not all students have the ability to read and assimilate information on their own, so most of the content is covered in the classroom using a variety of teaching methods. As a result, many advanced students find that they can get good grades simply by paying attention in class. They don’t have to study at home.

Once a student moves on to college, it is assumed that they have a certain level of academic proficiency. Standards vary from college to college, but it is generally expected that students will be able to read and process course materials on their own. Thus, the responsibility for mastering much of the content of a course is left to the students working on their own or in small groups.

This shift in responsibility from the teacher to the student is the factor that trips up the most students. Students may be able to maintain acceptable grades in high school without studying, but their lack of study skills will come back to haunt them in college.

I do want to note that there are some excellent high school teachers who do prepare their students well for college. Often, they are not the most popular ones. I remember back to my own high school days when, I must confess, I was the typical student who was satisfied just getting decent grades while not studying at home. There were only two teachers, one an English teacher and one a science teacher, who really made the students work. Of course, they were the most feared and disliked teachers at the time, but they were the ones whom students appreciate after graduation.

The difference between a high school classroom and a college classroom is an excellent reason for students to take at least one or two dual enrollment college courses. By taking college courses that count for high school credit, students have the opportunity to experience the expectations of college while they still have their support system at home.

Finally, the third reason that students have difficulty maintaining a B average in college is that many of them were not actually B students to begin with.

There are some school districts that have a reputation for inflating grades. In some cases, this occurs because a system has fewer good students, so they tend to lower their standards in order to get a more equal distribution of students across the spectrum. In other cases, schools lower their standards because of pressure from parents or students seeking HOPE eligibility.

One indicator of high school grade inflation comes from comparing End of the Course Test (EOCT) scores with overall course grades. Fayette County students do very well and have one of the highest pass rates in the state.

But, there are school systems in Georgia where over one-third of the students who received an A for a course actually failed the EOCT. Either the test is not measuring what is taught, or the students are not actually A students.

Further evidence of grade inflation can be found in the fact that 10 percent of all HOPE eligible students are required to enroll in remedial courses based on their math and English placement tests. Remedial courses do not count for college credit because they are below basic entry level college courses. One would think that a true B student would be prepared for the most basic college courses, but 10 percent do not meet this basic standard.

While it may be too late for new high school graduates to change their high school experiences, it is not too late to enter college with the proper motivation and perspective to do well.

During most college orientations, students will be told that they should devote two hours of study time for every hour they spend in the classroom. This means that if a student is enrolled in 15 credit hours, they should plan to study 30 hours per week.

Many students will laugh off this advice – and many will find themselves among the two-thirds of students who lose their HOPE eligibility their first year.

I would like to offer a bit of advice to parents, as well. Remember, the HOPE Scholarship is your student’s responsibility, not yours. The HOPE is a merit-based scholarship, and it is essential for students to learn that this is a reward that they must earn and not one that comes automatically just for staying in college.

If students lose the HOPE Scholarship, they still have options to stay in college – they can take out loans or work more hours to pay for their own tuition. These options are not ideal, but they may be just the incentive some students need to put more effort into school and earn back their scholarships.

The thing I appreciate the most about the HOPE scholarship is that it is a merit-based reward. Once students graduate and enter the world of work, they will find that employers reward merit and not just participation. People value that for which they must exert effort to achieve.

If it costs a student nothing to go to college, either financially or through personal effort, then a student is likely to put nothing into it.

I think parents should assist their children by helping to pay for their education if possible. But the students have the responsibility to work hard and get good grades as their part of the deal.

If a student does not do that, then I think the best thing parents can do for their child is make them endure the financial consequences of losing the scholarship.

In the long run, they will graduate as more responsible adults if they learn to grow up and take responsibility for their own future at the same time they are earning their degree.

[Dr. Kevin Demmitt is assistant vice president for academic outreach and director of the Fayette campus of Clayton State University. Beginning with the spring 2010 semester, the Fayette campus will offer the AACSB-accredited School of Business’ BBA degree.]

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