Students Receiving Merit-Based Aid Less Likely to Graduate With a STEM Degree

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on February 22, 2016 at 12:18 pm
Students Receiving Merit-Based Aid Less Likely to Graduate With a STEM Degree

Merit aid based scholarships are designed to give students a shot at a college education, but interestingly, a byproduct of that help is less interest on the part of recipients pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to researchers at Georgia State University and Oklahoma State University.

As part of a larger research project that looked at the impact of merit-based aid on students, researchers decided to study how many aid recipients graduated with a STEM degree. What they found is that in states where there were significant merit-based student aid programs, on average, there was a 6 to 9 percent reduction in the number of STEM majors. For Georgia residences receiving merit-based aid under the HOPE Scholarship Program, the reduction was around 12%.

“There was some anecdotal evidence that it’s hard to keep merit scholarships with the GPA requirements,” says John Winters, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at Oklahoma State University and co-author of the report. “Some STEM fields are very tough and that might create some incentive to move away to less challenging [degrees].”

The research is particularly important in the current environment where there is a dearth of STEM graduates in the U.S., despite the fact that many of these are high-earning fields. Not to mention the societal benefits of being a country strong in STEM. “Given the individual benefits and social and national benefits STEM is getting a lot of attention,” says Winters. “It’s a hot and important topic right now.”

Without STEM graduates, the United States can’t compete globally

With science and technology at the center of the global economy, those countries that can’t compete or innovate will be left behind. Recognizing that, the Obama administration has been stepping up its efforts to get more young people interested in STEM-related fields. Females and minorities are particularly underrepresented in STEM, which is why a lot of the aid is focused there.

Late last month, the White House announced a new initiative to give all students around the country a chance to learn computer science in school. In spite of the fact that educators and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that computer science is now a basic skill needed for economic opportunity and social mobility, the $4 billion in funding for states and $100 million earmarked by Obama to offer hands-on computer science courses across public high schools was, unfortunately, part of the 2017 budget proposal recently not approved by Congress.

According to the White House, by some estimates, just one-quarter of all K-12 schools in the U.S. offer computer science with programming and coding, and only 28 states allow computer science courses to count toward high school graduation.

GPA requirements may cause students to choose easier classes

Merit-based aid like Georgia’s HOPE program is designed to give Georgia residents, who demonstrate high academic achievement, assistance in covering educational costs while attending an HOPE-eligible postsecondary institution in Georgia. In order for students to keep the aid, they have to maintain a grade point average of 3.0 or better. While the researcher said the most commonly suggested explanation for the decline in STEM graduates is because students are worried about keeping their eligibility for the merit-based programs, there are other theories that make sense as well.

David L. Sjoquist, a professor in the Department of Economics, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and co-author of the report, pointed to Georgia HOPE students for one example. If they were so worried about holding on to their aid, they wouldn’t pick STEM majors to begin with, which they do, lending some credence to other reasons as to why the number of STEM graduates declines. Sjoquist says that because high school students need a GPA of 3.0 or better to get the merit-based aid, they may choose easier courses in high school that don’t prepare them for the rigors of a STEM college degree.

Fixes to merit-based aid will require more resources

Regardless of the reason why merit-based aid recipients don’t graduate with STEM degrees, there are things that can be done to improve the situation. Both researchers pointed to the GPA requirement as one area that can use some improvement. Sjoquist suggests that instead of students losing their merit aid because of their GPA, it could be that if your GPA suffers, you lose some but not all of the aid.

“A lot of students lose HOPE if they fall below a 3.0, why not let more students keep the aid?” says Sjoquist. He says Georgia state legislations have proposed that for difficult courses the allowable grade would be less than a B or 3.0 GPA. But, that idea gets murky once you try to determine which courses are more difficult than others. Winters says another option is to have better ways to intervene with the students across the board, so they don’t lose their merit-based aid.

Either way, it will cost the state more money, but it could result in more students graduating with STEM degrees. “There’s no free lunch,” says Winters. “If you want to intervene to better shepherd students through the college experience, it is going to take real resources, people, time and money.”

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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