Moderated by Tom Sabulis
By Michelle Nunn
Georgia’s HOPE scholarship is one of the largest merit-based college scholarship programs in the United States, but it could be so much more. By rewarding both good grades and volunteer service, the HOPE scholarship could teach the rest of the nation how to produce educated, engaged citizens who know how to give back.
By requiring service, the HOPE scholarship would build on the legacy of the G.I. Bill, arguably one of the most successful and popular government programs in U.S. history. By the end of 1956, roughly 2.2 million World War II veterans used G.I. benefits to attend college. Giving veterans an education in return for their service helped create the “greatest generation,” building our country’s unparalleled economic strength and enriching our communities.
We recently increased the academic requirements for the HOPE scholarship in response to our state’s fiscal constraints. Today, high school students in Georgia earning a 3.0 grade point average or better qualify for scholarships to colleges in the state. That’s a great reward for academic performance. But if we’re eager to turn out good citizens, we have to do more.
Since 1993, Georgia has awarded HOPE scholarships worth almost $7 billion to more than 1.6 million students. Think of the impact on our communities and our students if each of them contributed by serving others. Tying service to scholarships would teach students that citizenship is a two-way street – benefits, yes, but responsibilities, too.
The value of student service time would add up in many ways, not the least of them economic. Last year, 203,000 students received HOPE scholarships. If we required each of these young people to spend just 100 hours volunteering while they were in high school, they would provide time worth nearly $150 million. Add a requirement to volunteer 50 hours each year during college, and we’d see an additional economic impact of $74 million.
Today, local governments and nonprofits face the challenge of providing more services with fewer resources. Student volunteers would bring energy and enthusiasm. And who knows, maybe some of these young people will come up with innovative solutions to community problems.
Research shows that service requirements benefit students in a host of welcome ways.
• Students who participate in community service are 22 percent more likely to graduate from college.
• Students who volunteer just one hour a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.
• Youth who serve develop social and civic responsibility and are more likely to become lifelong volunteers, and to vote and participate as active citizens.
In addition, service learning motivates students to achieve and helps them develop leadership skills and self-confidence. Students who serve find mentors or career interests, encounter new worlds, beef up their resumes, and improve their chances of being accepted into the most competitive colleges and getting jobs.
Over the past few years, our legislators have been forced to change the HOPE scholarship’s eligibility requirements to maintain its economic viability. If we need to increase the requirements for eligibility again, let’s add a service requirement rather than continuing to increase the GPA. We need students who are committed to academic excellence and giving back to our state.
A service requirement for the HOPE scholarship would cultivate the next generation of civic leaders by keeping not only the brightest but also the best kids in Georgia.
Michelle Nunn is CEO of the Points of Light Institute in Atlanta.