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Recent Research: Do State Merit-Based Scholarship Initiatives Decrease Enrollment in the STEM Fields?

June 04, 2008

Since the inception of the HOPE scholarship program in Georgia 15 years ago, the number of state-sponsored merit-based scholarship initiatives to increase the number of students attending in-state colleges and universities has increased throughout the country. One such statewide initiative, Florida’s Bright Futures Program, was established in 1997 and has since become the second largest merit-based scholarship program in the U.S. At the recent annual forum of the Association of Institutional Research held in Seattle, Dr. Shouping Hu of Florida State University presented a paper examining the possible unintended consequences for student bachelor degree enrollment in the STEM fields before and after the implementation of Florida’s program.
The research finds in the two years before Bright Futures was introduced, enrollment in the STEM degree programs was at 48.0 percent of total baccalaureate enrollment in 1995 and 47 percent in 1996. In the two years after the program was started, STEM enrollment dropped to 39.2 percent in 1998, then to 37.7 percent in 1999. This represents a nine percentage point decline when comparing the two-year intervals, even though the total number of students in the STEM fields were “essentially stable” over the entire period.
Additionally, students receiving Bright Futures scholarships from the state were more likely to be enrolled in a STEM degree field than non-recipients, especially for the students that were provided the highest level of the Bright Futures Scholarships, according to the paper. For example, in 1999, the research found 45 percent of Bright Futures’ full-tuition scholarship recipients were enrolled in the STEM fields, compared to 34.2 percent STEM enrollment for partial-tuition scholarships and 29.3 percent STEM enrollment for students who did not receive any scholarship. When controlled for factors such as gender, race and participation in free and reduced lunch programs, this pattern of STEM enrollment between scholarship recipients continued.
Even though this research found participants in Bright Futures were more likely to choose STEM degrees than non-recipients, there was a “substantial and significant” decline in the overall STEM enrollment rates before and after Florida began the scholarship initiative. Hu contends one plausible explanation for the decrease in STEM enrollment rates is the need for students to maintain or ameliorate their class grades in order to continue receiving funds or to increase their eligibility for a larger award. Fields perceived to be more difficult to attain higher grades may be avoided.
The paper, Merit-Based Financial Aid and Student Enrollment in Baccalaureate Degree Programs in Science and Engineering: What Can Florida’s Bright Futures Program Tell Us?, is not yet available online, but the author can be contacted via: shu (at) coe.fsu.edu.

Florida, Georgia