HOPE scholarship deters college students from majoring in STEM fields: GSU report

High school and college students steer away from classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) out of a fear of jeopardizing their HOPE scholarships, according to recent research by Georgia State University. Credit: onlineathens.com

By David Pendered

HOPE STEMFear of losing a HOPE scholarship may be one reason college students are steering away from a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, according to research conducted by a professor at Georgia State University.

“We find that as a result of these merit aid programs, there was a significant drop in the probability of students majoring in STEM,” David Sjoquist, co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Sjoquist is an economics professor in the Center for State and Local Finance and the Fiscal Research Center at GSU’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. John Winters, of Oklahoma State University, collaborated on the project.

Sjoquist and Winters have produced two reports since August that are adding substance to the debate over the need to tweak the HOPE scholarship.

One emerging issue is the scholarship’s requirement that recipients maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0, on a 4.0-point scale. Other requirements exist. The 3.0 GPA must be maintained, regardless of the perceived difficulty of the field of study, to retain the scholarship.

Here’s how Sjoquist framed the issue in GSU’s statement:

  • “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.”

Further research is needed to determine the reason merit aid affects choice of the college major. The Sjoquist/Winters research establishes that merit aid does affect choice of major.

This is the abstract from the paper published in August, emphasis supplied:

  • “Since 1991 more than two dozen states have adopted merit-based student financial aid programs, intended at least in part to increase the stock of human capital by improving the knowledge and skills of the state’s workforce. At the same time, there has been growing concern that the United States is producing too few college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Using microdata from the American Community Survey, this paper examines whether recently adopted state merit aid programs have affected college major decisions, with a focus on STEM fields. We find consistent evidence that state merit programs did in fact reduce the likelihood that a young person in the state will earn a STEM degree.

This is the conclusion of the abstract from the second paper (the beginning of the abstract repeated the wording of the first abstract):

  • “[T]his paper examines whether recently adopted state merit aid programs have affected college major decisions, with a focus on STEM fields. We find consistent evidence that state merit programs did in fact reduce the likelihood that a young person in the state will earn a STEM degree.”

The second study reviewed 27 states, including Georgia, which adopted merit-based state aid programs between 1991 and 2005, according to GSU’s statement. Researchers paid particular attention to nine states viewed as having strong programs – Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Results indicate that a strong merit aid program relates to a 6.5 percent reduction in the number of STEM graduates. The drop could be as great as 9.1 percent. A greater proportion of males than females dropped out of STEM programs, according to the statement.

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