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Gates fund to study 'cash for grades'

Foundation will analyze whether incentive payments to low-income college students are effective.

December 09, 2008|Gale Holland | Holland is a Times staff writer

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is throwing its weight behind the trend to offer "cash for grades" to keep low-income students in college, despite protests from some quarters that such incentive payments amount to little more than bribery.

The foundation will devote $13 million to study whether paying low-income college students between $1,000 to $4,000 to stay on track is effective, officials said today. The cash payments themselves will be made by programs in California and several other states.

"One of the biggest barriers to low-income students obtaining a certificate or degree is the inability to go to school on a full-time basis," said Hilary Pennington, director of special initiatives at the Gates Foundation. "It's almost sad how putting such a small amount of additional money in their hands ends up helping so much."

In this state, the Gates study will assess $2.9 million in such payments made over two years by the College Access Foundation of California. Recipients, who can be enrolled in either two- or four-year college programs, will be selected randomly and must maintain a half-time schedule and a C average to get paid.

The funding will be administered through the California Student Aid Commission and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce's Cash for College program, another scholarship effort.

Students in elementary, middle and high schools in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., already collect hundreds and even thousands of dollars in rewards for classroom performance. Colleges have been slow to follow. An incentive scholarship program for mostly African American single mothers attending community college in Louisiana showed strong gains before it was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, officials said.

Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a Boston-based education advocacy organization, said cash incentives for school achievement generally work in the short run, but there is no evidence that young students who get paid for good grades change their long-term habits.

"Kids get accustomed to cash incentives or bribes, and when they get to classes that don't have incentives they say, 'Why play? " he said.

On the other hand, Schaeffer said such payments may work better with college students, particularly if the rewards are large enough.

The Gates-funded study to try to answer that question will be conducted by MDRC, a social policy and education research institution with offices in Oakland and New York City. Thomas Brock, head of the MDRC unit running the study, said the aim is to reverse the dismal dropout rates for low-income college students, particularly those in community college. Right now, he said, about half of those students break off their education before completing a certificate or degree program. Most receive no help with room and board costs while they are studying.

"The reasons people drop out are complex, and there's no one thing responsible, but financial reasons are a big factor," Brock said. "The idea is to create an incentive so if you stay in college and demonstrate you're a serious student, you'll be rewarded."

Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said in some respects the incentive payments "really aren't any different than merit scholarships, which often require students maintain a certain grade point average to remain eligible."

"There's nothing wrong with incentive payment per se," he said.

"But in an ideal world, one would hope that colleges and universities would be able to motivate students with great teaching rather than financial carrots."

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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