Paying for Grades is More Complicated than A, B, C

 

Starting next year, Ohio’s state legislature will select three community colleges to test a program that gives performance-based scholarships to low-income student-parents at the school — an effective plan in theory, given that money is a powerful motivator. But the standards for reward money are so low they’re less “performance based” and more based on whether or not the student showed up.

The high “performance” standards mandated are that the scholarship students maintain a “C” average while taking 12 or more units; similar programs are in the works for community colleges in California, New Mexico and New York. While the scholarships might be well-intentioned, they’re spoiling the students with short-term gain and rewarding them for standards that show no exemplary work.

Ohio used Louisiana as its model in the state’s attempt to spend the welfare surplus (the unallocated funding for the state’s welfare projects). Almost a decade ago, Louisiana started a performance-based scholarship program from its own surplus money. The state legislature found the program “promising,” but 10 years later, there are no statistically significant improvements in graduation rates.

Ohio’s scholarships give up to $1,800 a year to those students that earn at least a “C” in 12 credits — a grant that covers most of the average $2,076 community college tuition. But the students receive no bonus for the extra effort of achieving higher than a “C” because the goal of the program is to motivate students to improve, and then get them out the door as quickly as possible. But without a tiered system of reward, the incentive only motivates students to scrape by with a passing grade. If the schools really wanted a motivational scholarship, they should set the standard higher than just “average,” and reward different levels of performance.

Additionally, the 12-credit requirement could hurt the quality of education students receive, since the terms of the grant encourage students to take more classes that require minimal effort. And 12 credits is the bare minimum to begin with. A study by the New York-based non-profit research organization MRDC showed that, on average, students in the experimental scholarship group didn’t earn even one credit more than those in the control group.
Despite its high rewards — and due to its low standards — this program is hardly making a difference.These scholarships are encouraging students to take the easy way out. If a student needs to make C’s to pay the rent, then he’ll be driven to enroll in less challenging courses just for the cash. This makes students less ambitious toward taking challenging classes that will ultimately be more beneficial.

Instead of pulling out the checkbook every time a student comes along with a “C” average, colleges could raise the GPA threshold for monetary reward, encouraging them to continue improving. For the students who no longer receive an award for their 2.0 GPA, the leftover money could go toward something that directly improves the quality of higher education, such as additional tutoring programs for low-income students. That way, the state can work towards its goal of improving grades and all students will benefit from the funds — not just those that make the grade.

In the long run, this form of extrinsic motivation will not help students perform better. And once the money stops flowing from Ohio’s welfare surplus, students may be less motivated to maintain their grades. The best thing that can be done for these students is to instill in them a desire for life-long learning through quality education, and to educate them on the long-term benefits of doing well in college. While we all wish we could clock in the hours we spend studying for our midterms, this new system would spoil us and encourage learning only as much as we need to get by. Honest, hard work is a critical expectation for getting into college; that shouldn’t change once you’re there.

Readers can contact Madeline Mann at [email protected].

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