Matt Kempner, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 31, 2007
Georgia’s immensely popular HOPE scholarship—an award that for years has been given to average and sometimes below-average students—is significantly harder for high school graduates to get, thanks to new eligibility rules applied this year.
Most years, more than half of Georgia’s public school seniors met the award’s grade requirements for a B average. But in the most dramatic shift in HOPE’s history, only about a third of Georgia’s 2007 public high school seniors will have qualified for HOPE scholarships this year.
Recipients still need a B average, as they did in the past, but the new rules adopted by state legislators were designed to make grade calculations more uniform, regardless of what high school students attended.
“It’s going to negatively affect a lot of the schools with the big minority populations,” he said. Lawrence, who is black and describes his family’s circumstances as lower middle class, said he thinks people in low-income and heavily minority communities tended to be less aware of the changes and so they didn’t alter the mix of classes they took or the effort they made to get HOPE under the new rules.
“Many of us didn’t understand how the calculations would work,” Lawrence said.
His son graduated earlier this year from Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and thought his GPA was high enough for HOPE. The 18-year-old was stunned when he found out it wasn’t.
“My first thought was that they had made some type of mistake,” said Dionte Lawrence, who wants to major in education and psychology.
Advanced courses hurt
In Marietta, Leslie Cohen said her 17-year-old daughter was a National Merit semifinalist but didn’t get HOPE because of this year’s changes in calculations. Emily Cohen, who landed a $10,000-a-year merit scholarship to attend Agnes Scott College, had loaded up on tough classes her entire high school career. Her final semester at Pope High included Japanese III and three advanced placement classes. Under the old system for HOPE, she could have gotten more credit for some AP classes she took and she could have dropped poor grades in some of her extra core classes.
In metro Atlanta, the steepest declines in the number of HOPE-qualified students were in the school systems with the biggest percentages of minority students—the city of Atlanta and Clayton County. The smallest local declines were in Fayette and Forsyth counties—which have some of the smallest percentages of minority students locally.
But the declines didn’t necessarily fall along racial lines. For example, Cherokee, where nearly 80 percent of the students are white, had one of the sharpest declines in number of HOPE qualifiers.
“We’re going to have to look into the data to see why we declined so much,” said Mike McGowan, a spokesman for the Cherokee school system. He said that after the changes were made in 2004, the system sent letters home to parents of middle school and high school students informing them that changes would be made in calculating HOPE eligibility.
David Lee heads research and analysis for the commission, which is still tabulating data. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some school systems saw dramatically steeper declines than others, he said.
State Sen. Bill Hamrick, a Republican from Carrollton, co-chaired the commission that recommended the grading changes for HOPE. He says he wants to find out why there were sharp differences in how the alterations affected school systems.
“We don’t want to disqualify based on race or geography,” Hamrick said. “We don’t want that to kick out an inordinate number of rural students or minority students.
In defense of changes
State Rep. Bob Holmes, a Democrat from Atlanta who also sat on the HOPE study commission, said he isn’t surprised by the disparity among school systems. There also are sharp differences in how different school systems compare on standardized test results, Holmes said.
HOPE is a merit scholarship, Holmes said. “A B standard or a 3.0 isn’t, in my mind, an extremely high standard. . .. You don’t give scholarships to C students.”
But that’s what was happening under the old system based on the University System of Georgia’s own way of considering grade-point averages, according to a Board of Regents review.
One standard for all
Prior to this year, school systems reported HOPE grade averages to the state. Each calculated averages their own way, since there are no statewide standards for grading systems. Now, the Georgia Student Finance Commission calculates GPAs using a uniform system for weighting some harder classes, counting all core classes—rather than just some—and relying on a 4.0 scale, which can make it harder to earn a B average than with a 100-point scale.