Provost Brian Blake recently floated the idea of raising the minimum grade point average required to continue receiving merit aid. That could bring the University more in line with its peer schools, but officials must ensure the policy is fair.
If it is not implemented properly, the proposed policy could disregard differences in academic rigor and bring difficulties to low-income families. Schools with more difficult classes could have a harder time keeping up a higher GPA, while poorer families could struggle to foot the tuition bill without merit aid. Officials must consider these factors to ensure low-income students and students taking difficult courses are not unfairly affected by the policy.
The minimum GPA to keep the presidential scholarship is currently a 2.0. This requirement is the same across all 10 schools, even though not all majors are the same difficulty. Being a student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences is not academically the same as being a student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Different programs across different schools might be more or less academically challenging than others. Varying academic rigor means raising the GPA requirements could unfairly strip scholarship money away from students who are performing just as well as their peers but are taking more difficult courses. The University should consider requiring different GPAs for students to maintain their merit award.
Given that the presidential academic scholarship is up to $25,000 each year for up to 10 semesters, losing the scholarship would make some students financially insecure. Low-income students would be hit especially hard, and one semester of bad academic standing should not mean they can no longer pay for school. Administrators should also ensure that raising academic standards does not disproportionately affect low-income students.
Blake had proposed bringing the required GPA up to a 2.7 per semester, which is above average grades. A 2.0 GPA, the current minimum, converts to a C, which is traditionally considered to be an average grade. A 2.7, meanwhile, equates to a B-, which has no special characteristic beyond just being higher than average. It is not far-fetched that students be required to achieve above-average grades to receive merit aid – after all, the award is given to students who perform exceptionally well academically. But what is considered to be above average might differ across schools.
The University Honors Program could help address these concerns. Students in the program must have a clear, probable path to having a GPA of 3.0 by the time they graduate. This is a policy that is not necessarily enforced with an iron fist – it is far easier for special circumstances like family matters, mental health or physical health to be taken into account if a student falls short one semester.
Merit aid cannot operate on the exact same system, because the University can take honors away from graduating students, but they cannot take away aid that was already granted. Still, the honors system does allow for a grace period, so students do not lose out in one semester when their GPA lags behind. If the GPA requirements for merit aid were raised, instituting a semester- or year-long grace period in which students keep their aid would give them time to catch up or deal with special circumstances.
Officials are right to want to align the University with its peers. It makes us a better institution and ensures we are keeping up with best practices. But the University should consider how students in more academically challenging schools and low-income students would be negatively affected by the proposed policy.
Andrew Sugrue, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a columnist.