Back on Track
For nearly a century, Georgia State University students and administration have figured out how to accomplish a lot with a little through innovative thinking and perseverance. That pattern of success continues through Keep Hope Alive, a scholarship program that makes small grants at critical times to help students regain state funding.
Keep Hope Alive scholarships of $500 per semester have helped hundreds of GSU students stay enrolled after their grades dipped below the required 3.0 GPA to stay on the state’s HOPE Scholarship, said Timothy S. Renick, GSU senior associate provost for academic programs.
Keep Hope Alive – funded through donations to unrestricted, university-wide scholarships – has become a cornerstone of “student success” initiatives that have earned GSU national attention as a model for how students from all backgrounds can achieve academically at high rates. GSU’s graduation rate has climbed 29 points in the last decade, and continues to lead the nation in graduating African-American students, according to this month’s report in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, a publication that tracks demographic data and trends.
“Because we had unrestricted scholarship dollars, we could be quick on our feet to respond with an innovative program,” Renick said of Keep Hope Alive. “That money went a long way toward changing the lives of hundreds of deserving students.”
As a signal of its effectiveness, Keep Hope Alive will get a boost from some of the $8 million GSU received from the state of Georgia, part of the $72.5 million targeted for increasing the retention and graduation rates at state institutions.
HOPE is Georgia’s popular merit-based aid program awarded to students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA at a HOPE-eligible high school. For GSU students awarded HOPE, the scholarship pays for almost 90 percent of their tuition.
But keeping HOPE is a challenge since students must keep their college GPA above 3.0. Only about half of GSU’s HOPE scholars maintain it. For those who lose HOPE, only about 20 percent will graduate.
That drop-off is both financial and psychological. HOPE Scholars are used to academic success, and failing to make a 3.0 GPA is often their first academic crisis. They lose confidence in themselves. Those students at GSU who receive Keep Hope Alive funding also attend academic workshops to help rewire themselves for academic success.
“I learned that I could be capable of a misstep, and that it will work out,” said Melissa Bradford, who regained HOPE and is on track to graduate in 2013. “I knew that [GSU’s] goal was to help get my scholarship back.”
Keep Hope Alive has made a significant impact at GSU. For GSU students who lose HOPE funding and are not in the Keep Hope Alive program, only 8 percent regain it. For students in the program, more than 60 percent regain it.
Kyra Jordan: From devastation to success
As a nursing major who commuted from Stone Mountain, Kyra Jordan got a C in anatomy her freshman year. Her GPA that year was 2.95.
“I was devastated when I lost the HOPE Scholarship,” she recalled. “Dropping out wasn’t an option, but I was hurt because I didn’t know where the money would come from. I didn’t want to let down my family, or myself.”
The $1,000 scholarship, spread over two semesters, gave Jordan a path to learn better time management and regain her confidence. Like all Keep Hope Alive recipients, she was required to attend four intensive workshops on topics including time management, reading textbooks, concentration, note-taking and financial literacy.
These new skills and the funding helped Jordan and others stay motivated to pull up their grades and stay on track to graduate.
Jordan made three A’s and a B in her new major – finance – to regain HOPE funding.
“I realized that I needed to decide what I really wanted to do, and I’ve always been more comfortable with math and business,” said Jordan, who expects to graduate in 2013.
“I also learned not to doubt myself. I always compared myself to my brother, who is four years older, and tried to compete with him. I now realize I have to go at my own pace and not compare myself to others.”
Melissa Bradford: Added resolve to achieve
Through the workshops required for Keep HOPE Alive, Jordan met psychology major Melissa Bradford. Bradford had lost the HOPE funding after a 2.96 GPA her freshman year. The bad news made her more resolved to achieve and take advantage of GSU’s offer of help.
“Losing HOPE is not an excuse for dropping out. I can’t accept that,” said Bradford, who affords college by working two jobs and lives at home with her mom. “I am going to make a difference.”
The $1,000 Keep Hope Alive scholarship exposed her to the academic assistance to achieve on the college level. She began making straight A’s.
“I had been getting anxious before a test, and I was already defeating myself by saying, ‘I can’t do this,’ “Bradford said. “Now, every time, I’m calm. I tell myself, ‘I’ve got this.’ I’ve studied and I’m going to succeed.”
The academic counseling she received through Keep Hope Alive has helped solidify her plans to be a counselor. After graduation in 2013, she plans to pursue a master’s in psychology.
“It helped me see things so much differently,” she said. “Before, I would just get upset too easily. I let things at school push my buttons and get to me. I started to look at these habits in a brand new way and if it wasn’t part of my academic plan, I just brushed it off.”
How it works
The emotional reaction to losing HOPE often pairs with economic reality that the student’s family may not be able to afford tuition and fees.
At GSU, 87 percent of students qualify for financial assistance. Another factor is cultural: 40 percent of students are first in their family to go to college, which means they often lack “cultural competency” – a confidence and knowledge about higher education. For all students, Renick said, the biggest factor in graduating is funding – if they can afford to stay at GSU, they will most likely graduate.
“We know that once a student stops out, it creates a momentum that is difficult to reverse,” Renick said.
At that fragile point, the student will get a friendly phone call from the Office of Undergraduate Studies.
“We wanted to make it more of an invitation, that we care and are concerned that they do well academically,” said Dhanfu Elston, GSU’s assistant director for academic outreach and support. “When we see students drop out or limit their hours so much that they end up dropping out, it’s heartbreaking.”
Even students who manage to stay at GSU often “start to find areas where they can skimp, such as borrowing books from a classmate,” said Elston. The $500 Keep Hope Alive grant can enable a student to buy those books, which allow a better chance to keep up academically.
The HOPE Scholarship program offers checkpoints for students to re-apply for funding after they complete additional academic hours. Financially desperate students will load up on classes in an effort to quickly reach the next checkpoint. A higher course load, however, makes getting better grades even more difficult.
Through Keep Hope Alive, frazzled students get a reality check. Each student must complete the Academic Coaching Experience (ACE) to get help planning a realistic strategy for staying at GSU. Sometimes that means changing majors or seeking other funding.
“College isn’t all roses and puppy dogs, and we have real honest conversations in a real and supportive way,” Elston said. “Through this, they realize what they want to accomplish, how to set and meet goals, and they can use those skills the rest of their lives.”
The program teaches students to pay close attention to academic connections. Students schedule one-on-one meetings with each of their instructors.
“For instance, a professor told a student there would be a pop quiz in the middle of the semester,” Elston said. “That one quiz could be the difference between an A or B, and that one grade could be the difference between regaining HOPE or not.”
Keep Hope Alive funding reflects the importance of private donations as government aid to students shrinks. The program’s scholarships have been funded entirely by private donations.
HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Economically, began in 1993 with funding from proceeds of the state lottery. It covered full tuition with a stipend for books. In 2011, the state overhauled the program to keep it from running out of money, and now covers less than 90 percent of tuition. HOPE will gradually cover a smaller percentage of tuition, so students and families will be bearing more of the expense of attending college.