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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34 comments
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gapeach101
gapeach101

To graduate from UGA  Summa Cum Laude requires a GPA of 3.9

To graduate from Georgia State Summa Cum Laude requires a GPA of 3.9

To graduate from GT with highest honors requires a GPA of 3.55

Either the classes are harder or the grading is harder at GT.  One way or another it should be recognized in awarding the HOPE scholarship.

redweather
redweather

@gapeach101 For what this is worth.  The graduation honor levels at Georgia State are:

3.5 - 3.69 Cum Laude

3.7 - 3.89 Magna Cum Laude

3.9 - 4.0 Summa Cum Laude


At Georgia Tech the honor levels are:

3.15 - 3.34 Cum Laude

3.35 - 3.54 Magna Cum Laude

3.55 - 4.0 Summa Cum Laude


What does the above mean? It means that Georgia Tech has different honors categories. Not sure it says anything about grading.



Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I understand the rationale behind awarding difficulty points to certain courses.  The problem with this approach is (1) what criteria is used to decide which courses to include and (2) by using this approach, you are adding unnecessary complexity to a process that should be very straightforward.


I've long advocated making HOPE a Reimbursement Program.  That way, the STEM student who makes a few  "C's" in a very difficult program will not lose HOPE.  They may have to pay a little more out of pocket for those particular courses, but they will not suffer the financial devastation of losing HOPE altogether.  Also, a reimbursement program will stop the financial losses to HOPE from paying for students to go to college for a year and flunk out.  If they fail courses, they do not get reimbursed for those classes.  Most reimbursement programs only pay for A, B, or C's on a progressive scale.

redweather
redweather

@Lee_CPA2 Changing this to a reimbursement program makes it something less than merit-based.

redweather
redweather

I must say that some of the comments here are a little surprising.  

This is my take on House Bill 801. Lots of parents were complaining about their sons and daughters losing HOPE. College and universities were hearing about it and so were many legislators. But legislators and the governor didn't want to lower the GPA requirement because that would mean they were lowering the standards. So instead they came up with a law that accomplishes the exact same thing while pretending to address a STEM graduate shortage. It's also true that all students enrolled in these courses get the GPA boost, not just STEM majors. Or at least I can see nothing in the law that suggests otherwise.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@redweather All students taking those courses do get the boost regardless of their declared major. With many kids undeclared or changing majors, I don't think the Legislature could have stipulated that kids be in certain majors. The state contends most of these classes are taken in the first two years of college when students are more likely to change out of STEM because they are at risk of losing HOPE. The thinking is that this grade boost policy gives those kids a push ahead that will lead them to stick with STEM.

redweather
redweather

@MaureenDowney @redweather Sounds like a reasonable explanation, but the evidence is quite murky when it comes to a STEM major shortage. And having watched Georgia's legislature for many years, I'm disinclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. There is also, depending on whom you talk to, a teacher shortage. However, I would be quite surprised if the legislature decided to do something for teachers. Bottom line: this legislation makes a lot of people happy, but the rationale is suspect.  

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

While I have some concerns about traditionally freshman courses being eligible for the bump, it doesn't seem to be a big deal.  Certainly college algebra, for example, should not.  Some students don't have access to the wide variety of AP or IB courses at their high school, and so they have to start college-level courses in college.  However, I am not sure that a student getting a D in ANY course should be given the bump for a D!

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

This is corporate welfare to increase the supply of STEM(what an overused, vague, fake, catchword) graduates to decrease pressure on STEM wages. Employers can pay more to increase the supply rather than the state watering down the curriculum due to  GA Tech having the inability to hire teachers that can design and mange curriculum that can be taught and learned at mastery level by high level students or failing to choose students who can adequately learn manageable curriculum. 


How many students DO maintain the hope scholarship at GA tech?

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@AvgGeorgian " inability to hire teachers that can design and mange curriculum that can be taught and learned at mastery level by high level students "

Recall please that 3.0 corresponds to a B average overall. I promise you that, if a Tech student earns a C in a class, he or she has MASTERED the material.  Lost in the ash-heap of history, apparently, is the idea that C is a passing grade.

This link is 6 years old, but back then 43% of Tech students with HOPE scholarships kept them for 4 years.

http://www.ajc.com/news/local/few-hold-onto-hope-for-whole-time-college/PbzRQqroWD8XhHpqon5DbL/

Northern Redman
Northern Redman

@AvgGeorgian  There is no wage pressure on STEM degrees. When there are not enough qualified people with degrees, employers just go to an increased use of H1B visas.

redweather
redweather

This is what the legislation states in pertinent part:

"Beginning in academic year 2017-2018, the cumulative grade point average calculated pursuant to this subsection shall include weighted grades for specific science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) college courses identified by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in consultation with the Technical College System of Georgia, the Department of Economic Development, and private eligible postsecondary institutions, by increasing the grade assigned by the instructor to the student for any such course by an additional 0.5 point if such grade is a B, C, or D."

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

What a muddled, incoherent argument. It's simple, you get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax. If the state of Georgia wants to encourage more students to take STEM coursework, there's nothing wrong with that. And STEM grades are usually NOT inflated - hence the bump to help students keep HOPE so that they are more likely to choose more challenging coursework.

redweather
redweather

@AlreadySheared Would you say the same if the state passed legislation encouraging more students to major in psychology or the performing arts?  And what evidence do you have for saying that "STEM grades are usually NOT inflated"?

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@redweather "Would you say the same if the state passed legislation encouraging more students to major in psychology or the performing arts?"


Sure - I WILL say it.  If the state of Georgia wants to encourage more students to to major in psychology or the performing arts, there's nothing wrong with that.


"what evidence do you have for saying that "STEM grades are usually NOT inflated"


This is based on my personal experience. 

1) I graduated from Georgia Tech multiple decades ago with a couple of STEM degrees and a 2.9 GPA. The average GPA for graduating seniors that year was 2.6


2) I have completed coursework at 5 different Georgia state colleges (the other 4 to remain unnamed for the sake of civility) over the years - single courses at 2 colleges, a complete freshman year at a 3rd, and a masters degree at a 4th.

Georgia Tech is the only Georgia state institution where I ever earned less than an A grade (see above) for any class.


AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

@redweather @AlreadySheared I guess I will have to concede defeat based on the evidence that you provi.. oops I can't see  ANY evidence that you provided. Even tougher to win a debate with NOTHING.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather @AlreadySheared At GT humanity classes have a GPA one full point above engineering classes. There is no apparent pressure to maintain a C average in humanities classes.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather @gapeach101 @AlreadySheared My daughter made the claim a decade ago when she was there.  I was dubious.  She gave me the website for looking at average GPAs, and she was right.  I know a number of GT students who were grateful for humanities classes freshman year because it helped them maintain HOPE for one more year.  

weetamoe
weetamoe

I know how very hard kids worked for that Tech degree and I know that Tech could fill every class several times over with students from out-of-state and from other countries --- students who could meet the requirements without needing an institutional thumb on the grade scale. A Tech degree has now become less valuable and Tech graduates will lose that special edge they had with prospective employers.  

Astropig
Astropig

"C" and "D" students don't need another half a point added to their grade.They need to work harder.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@Astropig Neither you nor the author know how grades are given at Ga Tech.  Mastery has little to do with grades.  Ga. Tech professors in the STEM area pride themselves on holding the line to a C average for the class.  You can have a class full of geniuses and the grades will average out to a C.  This is particularly true for the first two years.  Once you are in classes specific to your major, it's not quite as bad.

redweather
redweather

@gapeach101 @Astropig I would love to see the evidence for this.  Students and their parents need to know that "at Georgia Tech mastery has little to do with grades."  And since you seem to have inside information, is this also true at all the other colleges and universities in this state?

Astropig
Astropig

@gapeach101 @Astropig



If they are geniuses,they don't need a bump.


And by the way, I have a son at Tech.He didn't get there by grade inflation,I'll tell you that.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather @gapeach101 @Astropig There are websites Tech students can assess that show classes and GPAs by professor.  Historically the GPAs hover around 2.0, sometimes a little lower.  

redweather
redweather

@gapeach101 @redweather @Astropig But this still doesn't show that mastery and grades are not related. What it probably means is that a lot of students who get accepted to GT are either under-prepared coming out of HS or not hitting the books once they get to GT.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather @gapeach101 @Astropig The average SAT score for incoming freshman this year is 1458, with a 4.0  GPA.  Do you really think these kids just turned into average students who stopped studying?  I'm sure there are those who do.  I just don't think it's half of them.

Q1225
Q1225

@gapeach101 @redweather @Astropig  We're talking about HOPE (i.e., in-state students).  International and out-of-state students tend to be stronger academically and inflate the average stats.

Susan Souren Bangs
Susan Souren Bangs

Mr.Diguette seems to be confused between the calculation used to determine HOPE eligibility and the grades earned by a student and appearing on a transcript. The calculation used to determine HOPE eligibility has been changed to give a half point more weight to grades earned in certain STEM classes. No grades are going to be changed, no GPA's are going to be changed, no grade inflation has occurred. The grades that appear on a student transcript are the actual grades earned by the student. The grades used by potential employers and graduate schools are the actual grades earned by the student. The only place the "inflated" grades are used are within the HOPE eligibility calculation.

redweather
redweather

But wouldn't you agree that the "grades" are being "adjusted" to help STEM students maintain HOPE? And isn't that cause for concern?