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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 01 > Article

The Merits of Hope
by Catherine Gianaro

Hope springs eternal. But HOPE scholarships have been springing for the tuition of qualified Georgia college students for just the past eight years, since they were created with profits from the state lottery in 1993.

HOPE — an acronym for “Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally” — has provided more than $4.56 billion to education since its inception. Former Governor Zell Miller, now a U.S. senator, created the scholarship program to encourage more Georgia high school students to attend college and to keep the best and brightest students in the state as future wage earners.

But how successful has the HOPE program been in meeting its goals?

Two economics professors from the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business launched a research project to find out.

In a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation, Christopher Cornwell and David Mustard examined nearly a decade’s worth of records from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System — a nationally based collection of information on college enrollment from all post-secondary educational institutions — to determine HOPE’s influence on college attendance.

Among their findings: The scholarship program may not be increasing the number of Georgia high school graduates who attend college at all.

“If your goal is to significantly increase the number of people going to college, this is probably not the scholarship plan to adopt,” Cornwell said.

“Most of the HOPE money is going to those who were already planning on attending college, so you’re spending a lot of money to influence only a few people to attend college who would not have done so without HOPE,” Mustard said.

However, HOPE scholarships do appear to influence where students attend college. Recent statistics show that 76 percent of Georgia high school students with SAT scores over 1500 (of a possible 1600) now attend in-state rather than out-of-state colleges, compared with just 23 percent in 1992.

Research shows that between 1992 and 1998 the SAT scores of freshmen at Georgia colleges increased three times faster than the scores of freshmen nationwide, providing further evidence of the state’s increased ability to attract and retain its best students.

“The program is keeping the brightest Georgia students in the state,” Mustard said. “The number of Georgia residents attending out-of-state colleges peaked when HOPE started and decreased significantly afterwards.”

Encouraging top students to stay in Georgia has been a boon for the 34 colleges and technical schools in the state university system. By increasing the pool of available students, the program has enabled schools to be more selective and increase academic quality.

Before the scholarship program began, UGA accepted about 85 percent of its applicants; now many more students are applying and only about 60 percent are accepted. At the same time, the mean SAT score of incoming freshmen has risen from 1078 in 1992 to 1203 in 2000.

“Certainly, HOPE has benefited UGA,” Mustard said. “As a primary recipient of HOPE, we see all the benefits attached to [the program].”

By examining sales of lottery tickets, the economics professors also have verified some unintended aspects of the HOPE program, such as its often-criticized redistribution of wealth.

“We were able to follow lottery sales by county, and we’re confirming, for Georgia, the usual predictions,” Mustard said. “Counties with lower-income, minority and poorly educated populations have disproportionately higher [lottery] sales. At the same time, the data on the disbursement of lottery funds show that HOPE scholars tend to reside in those counties with relatively high-income and well-educated populations.”

The researchers also uncovered evidence of another effect of the program that frequently is targeted by critics: grade inflation.

“When HOPE started, a student just needed a 3.0 in all high school classes,” Mustard said. “Then the rules changed in 2000: Now students need a 3.0 in the core curriculum, making it more challenging for students to become eligible. The prediction was that this would result in a drop in HOPE scholars by more than 25 percent. As it turned out, there was only a 4 percent drop. So either high school students worked a lot harder or grades were inflated.”

About two-thirds of students lose their HOPE scholarships while in college because they fail to maintain a B average. While research shows that most of the retention problem occur at two-year community and technical colleges, students at four-year colleges are not immune.

“Most people I know lost [their B average] the first semester,” said sophomore David Marsden of his UGA classmates. “They don’t go to class, and they don’t study.”

Marsden, a management information studies major and honor student who earned a 1310 SAT score, doesn’t find it difficult to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA. But among his friends, he’s the exception. After realizing they lost HOPE in the first semester, many students only register for 12 hours during the second semester, he said. This way, they would not reach 30 hours — the first checkpoint at which students must re-qualify for HOPE — until the end of the third semester, enabling HOPE to pay for another full semester.

“I guess that’s their way of beating the system,” Marsden said.

With HOPE scholarships paying tuition, students are finding other ways to spend their money, Mustard said. “All you have to do is take a good look around campus to see where some of the money is going,” he said. “There is an incredible number of students driving brand new SUVs.”

This anecdotal evidence led Mustard and Cornwell to yet another study: tracking the expendable income of HOPE recipients. The researchers will compare car sales in Georgia versus other states since 1993, also taking into account such factors as Georgia’s soaring population growth during the past decade.

“Students openly discuss how their parents promise to give them a new vehicle if they go to UGA instead of Duke or Chapel Hill,” Mustard said.

“Why pay 30 or 40 thousand dollars to go to an out-of-state school?” asked Marsden, whose only choice was UGA. “I applied early on, so I knew early that I was getting in.”

After the Atlanta native completed his first year this past May, impressive grades were not the only thing he earned. The 19-year-old received a house as well. His parents used part of their son’s college fund to make the down payment. Marsden rents three of the four bedrooms to pay for the mortgage and the upkeep on the house, which is located about a mile and a half from campus.

This business student is getting an education in and out of the classroom. “I get to keep any extra [money],” he said. “And when I sell the house, I get to keep the profit.”

In future research, Cornwell and Mustard plan to delve into UGA student records.

“We have collected information on every student who attended UGA from 1987 to 1997,” Mustard said. “For example, we have grades, dropout rates, who lost HOPE, who left the university after losing HOPE,” but without names and social security numbers. “We’ll be questioning things like: Does SAT scores help predict success in college? Does HOPE lead students to take smaller class loads? Does the loss of HOPE lead students to withdraw from college?”

For more information, access http://www.terry.uga.edu/hope/home.html.

Catherine Gianaro, editor of Research Reporter for the past three years, is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. She also is a former UGA assistant director of research communications and assistant editor of Research Reporter.


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