Grade Inflation Just Got Respectable: The New Eligibility Rule Governing Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship

Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship is now in its twenty-fourth year of existence. Originally the brainchild of then Governor Zell Miller, since 1993 this merit-based scholarship program has distributed in excess of $9 billion in lottery proceeds to about 1.7 million qualifying recipients.

In order to be eligible for HOPE, which covers about 80% of tuition at public and private colleges in the state, 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% of tuition. It requires a 3.7 high school GPA which can’t fall below 3.3 once the student enrolls in a degree program.

Over the years, many students and their parents have complained that HOPE is too easy to lose and too hard to regain due to the GPA requirement. So during the 2016 legislative session Jan Jones, Speaker Pro-Tempore of Georgia’s House of Representatives, sponsored House Bill 801 which moved without opposition through both legislative chambers and was quickly signed into law by Governor Nathan Deal.

Beginning this 2017-2018 academic year, the legislation adds .5 points to B, C and D grades earned in math, science, technology and engineering courses taken during the first two years of college at Georgia’s public and private colleges and universities.

Although proponents of this legislation use a two-pronged defense to justify the HOPE GPA boost, what it really amounts to is grade inflation. First the defense.

Representative Jones was concerned that not enough graduating high school seniors eligible for HOPE were opting to become STEM majors. That needed to be addressed because, according to some, the U.S. simply isn’t producing enough STEM graduates to satisfy job market demand. Much depends, however, on how one defines a STEM occupation. Does that only include computer programming and engineering, or also medicine, blue-collar manufacturing, and some of the skilled trades?

Moreover, there is considerable doubt about the idea that America is really facing a shortage of workers with STEM backgrounds. For example, Michael Teitelbaum pointed out in his 2013 book Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent that we have been through five cycles of boom and bust, as politicians over-subsidize STEM fields. After careful research, Teitelbaum concluded that the U.S “produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S & E openings – the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”

But in thrall to the notion that we face a shortage of STEM graduates, Jones and her legislative allies were concerned that too many STEM majors were losing the scholarship during their freshman and sophomore years because of those pesky math, science, technology, and engineering courses they are required to take. And thus was born this “legislative fix” governing HOPE eligibility.

Since I’m not privy to what goes on behind closed doors in Georgia’s House, Senate, or Governor’s office, I can’t say what was discussed while House Bill 801 was still little more than a gleam in Jan Jones’ eye. I would bet, however, that none of the actors involved wanted it ever to be said that they had lowered the academic standards governing HOPE.

So instead, they claimed to be addressing “workforce shortages in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health care” and then, employing this legislative sleight of hand, effectively lowered the academic standards for retaining the scholarship.

Not everyone agrees with my take on House Bill 801. They argue this isn’t grade inflation because no student’s GPA will be increased, only the value B, C and D grades are given in math, science, technology and engineering courses for the purpose of determining HOPE eligibility. But according to a spokesperson for the Georgia Student Finance Commission, the decision to display these grades on a student’s official academic transcript is left up to each individual college.

If you’re wondering just how many courses are eligible for that extra .5 points, the numbers are sobering. Atlanta’s Emory University, which the U.S. News & World Report just ranked 21st in its annual list of the country’s best universities, has identified 149 that fit the bill, which is tops among private institutions in the state. The University of Georgia in Athens, no slouch at 58th in those same rankings, leads the way among public institutions with 147.

As for the law’s requirement that “courses shall be academically rigorous,” it appears rigor has no fixed definition. In addition to potential GPA killers like Calculus III, Organic Chemistry, and Principles of Physics, students also earn extra points for basic math and science courses, and at Kennesaw State University that includes a course called “Machining and Welding.”

There is yet one more troubling aspect of this legislation. All students attending Georgia’s public and private colleges and universities are eligible for the .5 grade boost to their HOPE computation, whether they’re STEM majors or not. So one of the linchpins holding this law together apparently required a little bending during the legislative process. Otherwise, so-called undeclared majors who take math, science, technology and engineering courses during their first two years of college wouldn’t get the GPA boost they deserve should they eventually become STEM majors.

House Bill 801 diminishes the value of Georgia’s merit-based HOPE Scholarship by lowering the standards for eligibility under the guise of addressing a STEM major shortage. It also sends the message that when students can’t make the grade, and when they and their parents do enough griping about that, there just might be someone holding elected office who is willing and able to bail them out.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Legislative tinkering is always a problem — more like meddling, in this case. Their hunger for headlines now has completely consumed their common sense. I go with Michael Teitelbaum on this, since one of my degrees is in pure mathematics and no potential employer ever showed an interest in it. Nor did my physics courses matter either. The biggest growth in jobs are at tattoo parlors (Karen Halnon and Saundra Cohen, 2006).

    • George Leef

      And conversely, a substantial number of jobs in STEM fields are filled by people who did not take STEM majors. The labor market is more flexible than people often assume.

      • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

        Yes, excellent point!

        I once knew a glass-blower from Germany, apprenticed in Germany, and worked his whole life for University of Michigan fabricating research equipment for chemists and biologists. I wonder if policy makers would consider his enormous contribution to be STEM, or not. BTW There is a shortage of research glass-blowers in the US.

  • Turning Leaves

    This isn’t grade inflation, it’s the opposite. This is a common sense reform to offset the out of control grade inflation in the Arts and Humanities, allowing STEM courses to retain rigor without costing many of their students their HOPE eligibility.

    • 48574

      I don’t see how that logic works.
      Is the Hope program a fixed amount of money and the amount of the award to each person goes down when you add one new person to the eligibility?

      If not, then how does having more Arts and Humanities be eligible have any effect on STEM majors?

      Simple extreme example:

      Regardless of how many people get a Hope it is worth $10k how does going from having say 1% of the Arts and Humanities majors to 100% get a Hope payment change what happens to me as a STEM major? The STEM major either gets of doesn’t get their $10k if they make the cut or not.

      You seem to to be trying to rationalize plain simply envy. They get money easily and that isn’t fair so we should get money easily also.

      • Turning Leaves

        That’s completely missing the point. If the purpose of the HOPE scholarships are to assist people in getting the degree they wish to and the average GPA for all STEM students is (let’s invent some figures) 2.8 and the average for all humanities students is 3.5 then the average Humanities student will keep any eligibility for a HOPE scholarship whereas a slightly above average STEM student would not. They’d have a choice between leaving STEM for Humanities to maintain eligibility or trying to find alternative funding to remain a STEM student. We shouldn’t want STEM to give everyone A’s as some Humanities profs routinely do. We should want eligibility requirements to reflect the relative rigor of the subject area, not be skewed by the grade inflation of certain fields of study.

        At graduation the ranks of those with Summa and Magna Cum Laude honors are swelled with Education and English majors. Are those departments really the home of the best students on campus?

        • redweather

          If you review the history of grades at colleges and universities, you will find they have risen at the exact same rate in all courses for at least half a century.

          What Georgia’s Legislature could have done was lowered the HOPE GPA requirement for STEM majors. That would have been more transparent and honest.