College & Workforce Readiness

Tennessee Scholarship Seen Tough to Keep

By Alyson Klein — January 26, 2007 4 min read
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Nearly two-thirds of the students who received scholarships funded by Tennessee’s new lottery lost their awards in the second year of college because their grades slipped, according to the first detailed look at the program by the state’s Higher Education Commission.

The report earlier this month on the program, which began in 2004, also found that students from low-income families were much more likely to lose their scholarships than were their higher-income peers.

Policymakers in Tennessee and analysts who study state merit scholarships say the findings—that 63 percent of students lost their scholarships because their sophomore-year grade point averages fell below the 3.0 required to keep the award—are in line with what they expected.

“There’s certainly no big surprise here,” said Donald E. Heller, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pa., who has researched state scholarship programs. He said states with similar programs—particularly Georgia—have seen the same phenomenon among scholarship recipients.

Mr. Heller speculates that many students who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA, on a 4-point scale, in high school might not perform at the same level in college, where courses typically are more rigorous.

Money for College

Tennessee offers a number of scholarship programs, each of which has its own eligibility requirements and maximum award level.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Tennessee Higher Education Commission

At least a dozen other states—Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, and West Virginia—have merit scholarship programs, .

Georgia’s program, the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, or HOPE, Scholarships, started in 1993. It served as a model for Tennessee’s—and also has seen many students fail to retain their scholarships.

Only 27 percent of Georgia students who received a state merit scholarship to a public university in 1997 were still eligible for the award at the end of sophomore year, according to Wagers Chenault, a spokesman for the Georgia Student Finance Commission. Georgia students who graduate from high school with a 3.0 or higher academic average and attend college in the state qualify for the award. They must keep at least a 3.0 GPA in college to retain the scholarship.

South Carolina’s program requires that a recipient meet two of three criteria: at least a 3.0 GPA, a minimum SAT score of 1100 or an ACT score of at least 24, or graduation in the top 30 percent of the high school class. Students must retain a 3.0 average in college to keep the scholarship. In that state, 48 percent of students who got the scholarship in the 2004-05 academic year kept it the next year.

Student Incentives

Tennessee enacted its scholarship program with the aims of encouraging bright students to stay in the state for college, increasing access to higher education, and giving students a financial incentive to excel in high school.

The state lottery finances four separate scholarships. The most widely distributed is the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship. Under that program, state residents who graduate from high school with at least a 3.0 GPA, or who have an ACT composite score of 21 or higher, out of a possible 36, can receive $3,800 toward tuition at a four-year public or private college in the state. Students who attend a two-year college are eligible for $1,900.

Recipients, 2005-2006


SOURCE: Tennessee Higher Education Commission

In part because of the low retention rates cited in the report from the Higher Education Commission, some key Tennessee lawmakers want to change the eligibility requirements.

Rep. Leslie Winningham, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the House of Representatives, said he would consider lowering the GPA needed to retain the scholarship to 2.75. Now, students can receive a 2.75 GPA during freshman year, but must have a cumulative average of 3.0 to keep their awards after sophomore year, defined as 48 credit hours attempted.

“I think a 3.0 GPA is probably not attainable for many students,” Rep. Winningham said.

Sen. Jamie Woodson, the Republican who heads the state Senate’s education committee, said that lowering the GPA requirement would bring the state closer to its goal of having more residents with college degrees.

Both lawmakers say the state lottery, which started in 2004, has a surplus of more than $300 million, so the state can afford the cost associated with lowering the awards’ retention requirements.

But Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, has no plans to advocate a lower GPA, Lydia Lenker, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an e-mail. He will instead propose eliminating eliminate community colleges tuition for high school graduate who can “demonstrate a reasonable level of college readiness,” she said.

Income Disparity

Although a goal of Tennessee’s program was to increase access to higher education, the report showed that students from lower-income households were less likely to keep their awards than those from wealthier families. Sixty-three percent of students from families earning more than $96,000 annually kept their awards; only 42 percent of those from families making less than $12,000 a year retained theirs.

Keeping Awards

The percentage of fall 2005 freshmen who kept scholarships under the Tennessee programs differed widely by family income.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: Tennessee Higher Education Commission

Low-income students also are more prone to dropping out after losing their scholarships than are their more-advantaged peers, the report found. Seventy-seven percent of students from families earning more than $96,000 who lost their scholarship remained in school, while 60 percent of students from families making less than $36,000 a year did.

Mr. Heller, from Penn State, said that lower-income students are more apt to work part time while in school and might have trouble balancing school and job responsibilities with college coursework.

“Even though they have this scholarship, they still have unmet needs,” Mr. Heller said. “Perhaps the state can look at changing the way they structure their retention rules so that lower-income students aren’t penalized.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Tennessee Scholarship Seen Tough to Keep


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