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Scholarship Pressure May Deter S.C. Students From Tough Classes

It's a real dilemma. Should high school students take advanced classes or play it safe to protect their grade point average?

When a lucrative scholarship hangs in the balance, as is the case in South Carolina, it can be an especially hard choice.

The director of the state's Education Oversight Committee, an independent group of education, political, and community leaders appointed by the state, says students are telling guidance counselors they don't want to jeopardize their chances of getting a scholarship by taking a tough course that could bring a low grade, according to an Associated Press story published this week.

This is an issue for students especially seeking one the the state's merit-based Palmetto scholarships, which award up to $10,000 a year for college tuition if an applicant earns a least a 3.5 grade point average and finishes in the top 6 percent of their graduating class. And concern over qualifying is even more intense in the tight economic times with the cost of higher education rising, the AP story explains.

While the Education Oversight Committee does not have data to support the anecdotal evidence, the story says that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's proposed budget for next year includes a request to investigate the issue and recommend solutions in a report by December.

Students in South Carolina are not alone in their dilemma.

"The higher GPA does help for scholarships," said Tim Conway, a school counselor at Lakeland High School in Wanaque, N.J., in an email to Education Week. He is also a 2014 finalist for School Counselor of the Year from the American School Counseling Association. "There is a balance, as not taking rigorous courses could prevent you from not even being admitted, which would negate the scholarships," he said.

Nebraska offers seniors scholarships at the end of their junior year and, generally, the requirements include maintaining a 2.5 GPA, getting a score of at least 20 on the ACT (out of a possible 36)  and ranking in the top half of their graduating class. Most high-achieving seniors want to finish high school strong, said Ruth E. Lohmeyer, a 2013 School Counselor of the Year finalist who works at Lincoln Northeast High School in Lincoln, via email. Often top students take rigorous courses, but if problems arise, they will take the class pass/fail to avoid a low grade, she added.

While GPA matters overall in college admission, the most recent report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling finds the top factors that colleges consider are students' grades in college-prep courses, the strength of their high school curriculum, and scores on the SAT or ACT. Their overall grade point average in high school was rated as a less important factor than all of those others.

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