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Lost HOPE

August 31, 2012

If you’re a student in the South with a state lottery-funded scholarship, and you want to retain said scholarship, being a black male from a low-income family with low ACT scores and grade point averages is “essentially the recipe for disaster,” says one researcher whose new study also found that when it comes to race alone, black students are significantly less likely to retain their scholarships than are their peers of other ethnicities.

And while colleges should establish more structures to keep those students above the minimum G.P.A. required for scholarship retention, the study’s author says, the students need to step up their game.

“It’s not the institutions’ fault, per se,” said Charles E. Menifield, a professor of public and non-profit administration at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “If I had to singularly blame somebody, I would have to blame the African American male, because ultimately they have control of their G.P.A.s. And I have no issue going on record as saying that they should seriously prioritize why they are in college.”

Menifield examined the effect of different demographic and academic factors on scholarship retention among more than 33,000 Tennessee students who benefited from the state lottery-funded, four-year, $4,000 HOPE Scholarship in fall 2007. The scholarship, similar to one started in Georgia and others throughout the country, requires students to maintain a minimum 2.75 GPA at 24 credit hours and a minimum 3.0 once the student has taken 48 credit hours.

The merit scholarship has been criticized as disproportionately benefiting more affluent students who could already afford to go to college, who went to better high schools and who, as Menifield's data show, are often white. But the low-income black students who do receive HOPE scholarships "can't use [their] background as a crutch for poor performance," said Menifield, an African-American son of a farm laborer who supported four children and a wife on just $9,000 a year.

"Yes, it is true that students from wealthy families are more likely to retain the scholarship," Menifield said. "So what? The criteria to receive a HOPE lottery scholarship is the same for everyone."

But the cultural, family, educational and financial obstacles many of those black students are facing can be crippling, and states need to make sure scholarships like HOPE are operating the way they were intended to and helping the students who really need it, said James T. Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed.

"We know that the support systems and programs that we've had in place have not necessarily been proven to be effective. Everything from financial aid services to advising," Minor said. "A scholarship is not a magic pill or potion that automatically gets a student to commit. We all know that's one variable, and there are often many others."

Menifield argues in the study, published in the Journal of Education Finance, that while lottery-funded scholarships may increase access to higher education, they do not necessarily translate to academic success for certain populations. (Scroll to the bottom of the page for more detailed findings.)

While 42 states offer lottery scholarships, though, Menifield suggested his findings are probably be less applicable in states outside the South. The profile of a black student living in the Northeast, for example – income level, family background, etc. – is likely far different than one in Tennessee or Georgia.

“I think the dynamics change. The culture changes,” Menifield said. “That’s why the solution to this problem has to be a holistic one – because I’m saying a specific type of black male is losing their scholarship. So the ones that don’t fit these criteria – those aren’t the ones I’m concerned about.”

Menifield envisions parents, religious leaders, teachers and administrators coming together to get these students – who have grown up spending more time just hanging out than studying – on the right track.

“I don’t think African Americans are inherently different than any other group of people. I think it’s all about how you’ve been socialized, and if you change the culture of the educational system then the problem can be solved. But it’s got to be an approach where everybody’s involved,” Menifield said. “They need to be socialized that, when you’re in college, the way to break the poverty cycle is to stay in college and graduate, and if someone’s going to give you money to go, you’ve got to focus.”

Universities can help, too – not just black or low-income students, but all students. As an example, he pointed to the learning communities at Mississippi State University, which group students together based on a common interest and see more student engagement as a result.

“This research strongly suggests that colleges and universities that desire to maintain diversity should at minimum target minority students, particularly African American males, and determine how best to improve academic success,” Menifield writes in the study. “This may require a survey simply asking, how can we help you to be successful? This could also include work groups led by high performing students, commitments by professors to facilitate work groups, community learning environments in dormitories, additional funding to ensure that students can focus on academic issues rather than working to make a living, and a culture that would indicate that the institution is concerned with the retention of all students.”

“The question of how much you intervene is a really, really big decision,” Menifield said. “The onus is on the student to say, ‘I need to go [to office hours].' But nine times out of 10, [the at-risk students are] not the ones to show up. And that’s where the problem starts.”

According to the 2008 Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship Program Annual Report, more than 68,000 students received lottery scholarships totaling $191.5 million in 2007, and both numbers were steadily rising over the past few years. Yet students in the highest income bracket – over $81,000 – represented the largest proportion among recipients, at 34 percent – a figure that is also on the rise.

At the same time, the retention rate for students with lottery scholarships has dropped from 50 percent in 2005 to just 32 percent in 2007 (though Menifield notes that these students are still more likely to stay in school than those without a lottery scholarship).

Menifield doesn’t analyze whether these students ultimately graduate. But he suspects there is probably a connection.

“I think it is fair to say that the number who graduate diminishes as the result of the funds drying up,” he said. “I’m not saying that just because they lose their scholarship they drop out of school – but the odds are, some of them do.”

Lottery Recipients by Various Factors (Fall 2007, Tennessee)
  Percentage of freshmen who lost scholarship Number of freshmen who lost or retained scholarship Percentage of seniors who lost scholarship Number of seniors who lost or retained scholarship
Race        
Asian 44.2% 129 20.3% 143
Alaskan 75% 4 50% 2
American Indian 33.3% 34 16.7% 12
Black 53.6% 847 50.7% 511
White 36.8% 7,084 24.2% 5,239
Hispanic 39.7% 131 36% 75
Gender        
Male 44.3% 3,347 27.1% 2,408
Female 34.9% 4,848 26.2% 3,562
Pell Grant Eligibility        
Eligible 72.5% 91 30.6% 1,260
Not eligible 38.4% 8,104 25.5% 4,710
ACT Scores        
<21 43.7% 2,934 42.3% 1,104
21-22 42.1% 2,228 32.9% 1,061
23-25 34.2% 1,938 23.1% 1,643
>25 25.9% 984 17.6% 2,134
High School GPA        
<3.13 57.1% 2,818 48% 870
3.13-3.47 39.6% 2,401 33.4% 1,235
3.48-3.78 26.5% 1,786 23.2% 1,737
>3.78 12.2% 1,184 16.6% 2,124
Adjusted Gross Family Income        
<$33,866 41.5% 2,402 30.9% 1,227
$33,866-$67,000 37.8% 2,270 28.8% 1,302
$67,001-$100,679 35.4% 1,950 27.2% 1,524
>$100,679 34.4% 1,384 20.9% 1,893

 

 

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