Black Students Losing Hope
Record Numbers of African American Students Forced From
State-Funded Tuition Program Before They Can Reap Full Benefits
ATLANTA — Georgia’s 6-year-old Hope scholarship program has brought thousands of African American students into the state’s higher education fold who otherwise would not have been able to afford a college education.
But a disturbing analysis released here last month indicates that record numbers of Black students are being forced out of the state-funded tuition program before they may be able to reap the benefits of a college degree.
Nearly 60 percent of African American students lose the scholarship within two years — much higher than the percentage for White or Hispanic students — according to a recent study co-authored by a Georgia State University professor.
“It shocks me to some extent,” says Dr. Gary Henry, a policy studies and political science professor who presented his findings here earlier this month at a meeting of the American Political Science Association. “I was concerned that this might be the case, but the magnitude of it was much larger than what I thought.”
Henry believes a disproportionate number of African American students don’t continue to qualify for the scholarships because of “the rigors of college work and the fact that African Americans are disproportionately coming from low-income families.
“Those students are having to work to supplement their incomes,” says Henry, a professor in the university’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. “As they spend more time trying to generate income to stay in college, it probably takes a toll.”
The Hope scholarship, instituted by former Gov. Zell Miller and funded by the state’s lottery, provides tuition, mandatory fees and a $150-a-semester book allowance to students who complete high school with a B average.
President Clinton used Georgia’s Hope scholarship program as a model for the national program bearing the same name. The federal program provides up to $1,500 in income tax credits to college students and their families.
Here in Georgia, students must maintain that B average in college to keep the scholarship. The program also gives grants to those B-average-or-better students who attend private colleges in Georgia and those who opt to go to a technical school.
Henry’s study reveals that more than three-fourths of all students lose their eligibility for Hope scholarships before completing four years of college. Of that group, only 4 percent to 5 percent are able to pull their grades back up to regain the grant.
Still, he says, the overall numbers are trending up. For example, the percentage of students who keep Hope a second year and remain in college has risen. And the number who keep Hope through four years increased from 21.7 percent to 22.7 percent from 1993 to 1995, he adds.
Since the state’s Hope program began in 1993, African American enrollment at Georgia colleges has increased by nearly 33 percent, surpassing the increase for White students.
But Henry’s figures show that 58.9 percent of Blacks lose Hope during their first two years, compared with an average 45.5 percent for Hispanics, 44.6 percent for Whites and 42.5 percent for Asian American students.
Several Georgia college presidents praise the state scholarship program for helping more African American students make it to college. But they say they are disturbed by the results of Henry’s study.
Dr. Oscar L. Prater, president of Fort Valley State University, a historically Black institution, says school records indicate that 60 percent of the 248 freshman at the university who received the scholarship in 1996-97 lost it after the first year.
“I think it’s just a matter of adjustment from high school to college,” Prater says, noting that 100 percent of Fort Valley State students who retained the scholarship past their freshman year were able to maintain good enough grades to receive it the next.
Dr. Shirley A.R. Lewis, president of Paine College, a private predominately Black institution in Augusta, says her review of the records indicates that 90 percent of the 155 students who received the scholarship last year qualified again.
“We think that’s because we’re small and we have a good mentoring system here,” Lewis says. “We know all of our students and what their situation is. Paine is a place where if you want to succeed, you will.”
Henry’s research shows that for all racial and ethnic groups that receive the scholarship, more than half of those who lose it drop out of college. But Lewis worries that the findings about African American students might be misconstrued.
“I want us to understand what the study says,” Lewis notes. “We shouldn’t take this to mean that African American students can’t make it. People who aren’t careful may interpret it as Black students flunked, but it means they couldn’t maintain a B average.”
Henry believes the results mean “we have to begin to look at whether or not we need some supplement to the scholarship” for living expenses so that the students can focus more on their education than paying for their day-to-day existence.
However, Henry expects to see dramatic changes in subsequent Hope scholarship retention figures after a new eligibility rule takes effect next year. That rule requires students to have a B average in “core” academic courses, discounting high grades they might receive for band, physical education or similar courses.
“When that kicks in, you’re going to see the percentages losing Hope go down,” he says. “Now, a lot of students have qualified with high scores on elective courses. But with the class of 2000, students will have to have a B average on their core courses.”
Henry says that requirement could cut eligibility for Hope scholarships as much as 25 percent.
At the University System of Georgia, administrators also have found the poor scholarship retention rate for Black students disconcerting, says Arlethia Perry-Johnson, the assistant vice chancellor for media and publications.
University administrators have worked with state officials to better align Hope eligibility requirements with the system’s academic requirements for admissions in the belief that “this should make a significant impact on the numbers,” Perry-Johnson says.
System records reveal that the state Hope scholarship program has brought an additional 4,000 African American students into the system’s 34 colleges and universities, Perry-Johnson says.
“That’s impressive and positive no matter how you look at it because our goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing postsecondary education,” she says. “Hope has been a tremendous asset in helping us to do that.”
State Rep. Larry Walker of Perry, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, says that he’s concerned about the program because large numbers of students continue to lose their Hope grants.
But Walker says he’s never been satisfied with the idea of using a B average as the criteria for the scholarship.
“A B in some schools could be a C in some,” Walker says, adding that he prefers some type of standardized test measure. Further, he says, teachers may be under pressure to inflate the grades of some students because “they know it’s a monetary thing.”
But Henry says in his report that he sees no evidence of grade inflation in the Hope scholarship program.
“If it was a result of grade inflation, you would see SAT scores go down,” he says. “But in fact, SAT scores are rising. That suggests to us there has been no grade inflation in high school.”
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