Freedom Scholarship Board: Let schools decide if students hit GPA mark

By: - October 24, 2023 12:11 pm
Photo of Northern State University metal wolf sculpture

Northern State University in Aberdeen. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

SIOUX FALLS — College students who get poor grades in a handful of semesters may be able to hold on to their South Dakota Freedom Scholarships or apply for new ones – as long as they remain on track to graduate with a 2.0 grade point average.

That guidance for participating universities came from the Freedom Scholarship Board of Directors during its Monday meeting at First Premier Bank in Sioux Falls.

First Premier Bank in central Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Seachlight)
First Premier Bank in central Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Seachlight)

The board considered a policy to outline if and when a dip in the scholarship’s required GPA target would trigger ineligibility, but its members voted to leave those decisions in the hands of university administrators.

The scholarship is a pool of funds created by the South Dakota Legislature, designed to reward students who choose South Dakota schools for their bachelor’s degrees and stay in the state for at least three years after graduation.

The scholarship dollars convert to loans with a 4% fixed interest rate for students who don’t graduate within five years, miss the minimum GPA mark or leave the state less than three years after graduation.

The endowment for the needs-based scholarships was built from $50 million in taxpayer funds and contributions from donors including First Premier Bank founder T. Denny Sanford, Avera and Sanford Health. In 2022, the first year the scholarships were disbursed, the total endowment stood at $220 million.

The scholarship board voted to dispense $5.1 million in the first round of awards in 2022, and a similar amount for this year. 

In the fall of 2022, there were 1,354 scholarships awarded, according to Freedom Scholarship Coordinator Elli Haerter of the South Dakota Community Foundation. This fall saw another 1,360 awards. 

The first 25 scholarship recipients to graduate earned their degrees in December of 2022, and another 129 recipients graduated this spring.

Haerter told the board there were several nursing students among those graduates, and several plan to pursue graduate degrees.

“Some of the students are on their way to med school,” Haerter said.


Board votes to stay out of GPA fray

Among the requirements for the $1,000-$5,000 scholarships is a stipulation that the awarded student maintain a 2.0 grade point average (GPA). 

Monday’s discussion focused on what it means for a scholarship recipient to “maintain” that GPA. The law on eligibility doesn’t include specifics on what that looks like, opening up questions about how long students can backslide academically before losing their shot at more scholarship dollars, or potentially seeing their scholarship become a loan.

A policy document up for discussion Monday outlined the board’s possible approaches to grace for students whose cumulative GPA falls below 2.0. Universities could give notice of a dip in a scholarship recipient’s GPA to the board at the end of the spring semester, for example, and the scholarship board could decide if the student deserves an exemption.

Board Chair Dana Dykhouse said questions like that ought not be in the hands of the board, however.

“We are a scholarship donor. We are not a scholarship administrator. We want to do all that we can to avoid becoming scholarship administrators,” Dykhouse said.

Universities award the grants, decide on the maximum amounts for each scholarship and track student progress. Dykhouse pointed out that every participating university requires a cumulative GPA of 2.0 for graduation.

If a university feels it’s possible for a student to hit that mark, he said, that ought to be enough for the scholarship board.

“Our interpretation of 2.0 is maintaining it through graduation,” he said.

The board voted unanimously to approve the simplified guidance.

Universities remain empowered to monitor and manage students with scholarships as they see fit, and to inform the board if a student is unlikely to graduate with a 2.0 GPA.

Other South Dakota scholarships

The Freedom Scholarship is the latest state-backed fund for South Dakota students. There are several others available, each meant to encourage students to learn and work in the state.

Build Dakota Scholarship: Full-ride scholarships to students who commit to joining high-need workforce programs at the state’s technical colleges. Graduates must stay in the state and work in their field for three years.

Critical Teaching Needs Scholarship: Financial aid offered to students who commit to working in high-need education positions for five years after graduation.

Dakota Corps Scholarship: Full-ride scholarships for eligible students who choose high-need careers and commit to staying in South Dakota for as many years as the scholarship is received.

Opportunity Scholarship: Up to $7,500 across four years for students who meet academic eligibility and choose South Dakota schools.

Hagen-Harvey Scholarship:  Offers $6,000 in financial assistance across four years for Native American students who choose South Dakota schools.


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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.