Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
Mostly True
Deal
The HOPE scholarship "has helped turn our University System into one of the best in the Southeast, with two institutions ranked in the top 20 of public universities in the country."

Nathan Deal on Monday, March 21st, 2011 in an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Deal says HOPE helped universities become some of the "best in the Southeast"

Georgia bid to keep HOPE alive by cutting it.

There was no choice, Gov. Nathan Deal said. He could either trim the popular college scholarship program or let it go bust, he wrote in an op-ed published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Letting HOPE die was not an option. He signed cuts into law March 15.  

"This program has helped turn our University System into one of the best in the Southeast, with two institutions ranked in the top 20 of public universities in the country," he wrote March 21.

This claim made PolitiFact Georgia reporters curious. HOPE has been credited with a lot of things. But improving the University System of Georgia? That was news to us. We checked this claim out.

HOPE awarded its first scholarship in 1993. Until recently, it gave full tuition at Georgia’s public colleges to students who graduated from high school with at least a 3.0 grade-point average -- so long as they maintained that average in college.  

Under "Enduring HOPE," the revamped program, only the state’s top students will receive full tuition, and they must maintain a 3.3 in college to keep the award. Students with at least a 3.0 will still get HOPE, but the amount will vary each year.

A Deal spokeswoman told us that the governor’s op-ed referred to U.S. News and World Report rankings for the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia. Sure enough, Georgia Tech ranks seventh among public universities. UGA is 18th.

In 1997, Georgia Tech ranked ninth. The University of Georgia didn’t crack the top 25.

But has HOPE helped that happen? And does a rankings jump really mean HOPE helped turned Georgia’s University System into one of the "best in the Southeast"?

College rankings, such as the ones from U.S. News, are regularly criticized by educators who think they are a poor measure of a school’s quality. They argue that the numbers say little about how well colleges educate their students and put pressure on administrators to game their numbers.

Still, if UGA’s and Georgia Tech’s rankings are rising, something good is going on, right?

We reviewed studies on the topic and talked to experts on merit-based scholarship programs such as HOPE. They agreed that Georgia’s program encouraged better-performing high school students who might have left the state to stay.  

For instance, a study found that in 1993, only 23 percent of Georgia’s high school graduates with SAT scores that topped 1500 stayed in state. By April 2002, 76 percent stayed.

And while Georgia high school seniors’ SAT scores grew by only 30 points from HOPE’s start through 2005, the scores of the state’s college freshmen jumped by 60 points.

This dramatic change helped rankings at top Georgia schools, especially UGA, rise. "Student selectivity" makes up 15 percent of a school’s U.S. News ranking. This measure includes students’ SAT and ACT scores, class rank and what proportion of applicants a university turns away.  

Other factors have boosted the rankings of Georgia’s top schools as well.

Nationwide, research shows that the cost of higher education has climbed so high that high-performing students who would have only considered private schools are looking at top state schools, said Donald E. Heller, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University who has studied HOPE. Also, flagship schools are working harder to recruit talent from other states. Those students tend to have higher scores and class rankings than in-state students.

In addition, researchers have found that HOPE has negative effects.

Because HOPE puts Georgia on the hook for college tuition, University System leaders have raised tuition rates at a much slower pace than schools in surrounding states, said David B. Mustard, a UGA economist who has been involved in a half-dozen studies that analyze the program’s effects.

This helps state coffers, but over time, it hurts a university’s ability to retain high-quality staff and keep low student-to-teacher ratios, Mustard and other researchers have found. Between 1993 and 2002, the number of faculty focusing on teaching fell in Georgia’s research universities by 3.2 percent and at two-year colleges by 23.2 percent. Meanwhile, enrollment grew.

And while HOPE may help students pay for school, it did not make them more diligent.  Research comparing recipients with out-of-state students found that to maintain the required 3.0 GPA, HOPE scholars took easier course loads, withdrew from more classes or enrolled more frequently in summer school, where it’s easier to get higher grades.

To sum up:

Rankings aren’t complete measures of a school’s quality. But as Deal said, HOPE did help Georgia’s top schools improve their rankings because it encouraged higher-caliber students to stay in state.

The downside is fewer faculty are teaching more students, and HOPE students are taking easier or fewer courses.

Deal is correct, but his statement could use more context. We rate his claim Mostly True.