With the HOPE scholarship bleeding money, the Legislature only has two choices to save the popular program. It can either slash the number of HOPE recipients or the amount that each student receives.
Neither will be politically popular, which explains why lawmakers long ignored the gathering storm clouds over HOPE until the winds nearly blew off the roof of the Capitol.
As early as 2003, legislators were warned that the Georgia Lottery would have a hard time keeping up with the two education programs it supports, HOPE and universal pre-k. This fiscal year, the lottery will be short $243 million. By 2012, the shortfall grows to $317 million.
Seven years ago, the state assembled a commission that made recommendations for deep cuts to HOPE, but a better-than-expected haul in lottery proceeds convinced lawmakers that the state could afford to wait to eviscerate HOPE.
So while the 2004 Legislature passed a bill that permitted an eventual phaseout of books and fees if the program’s finances deteriorated further, lawmakers also tacked on an amendment opening the scholarship to part-time private college students.
The annual price tag of that addition at the time was $4.5 million — or the cost of 1,000 HOPE scholarships at the University of Georgia.
The private college provision won legislative approval even though legislators knew that the HOPE scholarship would eventually outpace the lottery funds. The entire history of HOPE reflects expansions by the Georgia General Assembly, including allowing private college students who lost HOPE because of low grades to get a “second chance” to regain it, as given to public college students. The Legislature also expanded HOPE to home-schooled students and to students from unaccredited high schools.
The strain on HOPE resources also comes from the increased high school graduation rate, which is sending more Georgia teens to college. And the bleak economy is sending more Georgians back to school, fueling increases in the HOPE grants, which go to technical school students.
Now, Gov.-elect Nathan Deal and leaders of the House and Senate appear sobered by the dire situation and prepared to make significant changes to the scholarship program, which has helped more than 1.4 million Georgians attend college since 1993. To earn HOPE, high school students have to have a 3.0 grade-point average. To keep it once in college, they have to maintain a 3.0 GPA.
Many ideas on how to cut costs — and hopefully irk the fewest number of voters — are under discussion by lawmakers. All have drawbacks and will draw howls of protest.
The simplest idea is to raise the threshold to qualify for HOPE so fewer scholarships are awarded. Perhaps, students would have to have a 3.2 GPA to earn HOPE in high school and keep it in college.
There’s already quibbling from people who contend that the GPA requirement should be calibrated to match the rigor of the major. So, students in engineering or math may only have to keep a 2.75 GPA, while English majors might be held to a 3.5 GPA average. Otherwise, students might shun the science, math and engineering degrees that are desperately needed in Georgia because those majors are often the most grueling.
Another idea is to reduce the HOPE award so it only pays for 80 percent or 75 percent of college costs. That would be politically more palatable, as it wouldn’t entail cutting the number of HOPE recipients.
But it dulls the shine of the scholarship, which flourished on a simple and accessible concept: Graduate with a B average from high school and go to a public college or university for absolutely free.
“Nearly free” or “at a discounted rate” don’t have the same panache.
A prominent DeKalb lawmaker recommends incorporating a minimum SAT/ACT score to qualify for HOPE. State Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, said tightening the eligibility will eliminate the number of HOPE scholars in remedial classes.
In the fall of 2009, Millar said 10.4 percent of the University System of Georgia’s incoming freshmen students in remediation were getting HOPE. He argued that low SAT scores are a good indicator that a student will struggle in college. Millar cited state data showing that 3,465 public college freshmen with SAT scores under 1000 arrived on campus with HOPE in 2008. A year later, only 1,982 of these students returned to a Georgia public college.
No one likes my money-saving idea — once students lose HOPE in college, they can’t regain it. Parents tell me about their son’s killer semester at Tech or their daughter’s bad spell at UGA and argue that students deserve a second chance at HOPE.
I counter that students need to learn that sometimes there are no second chances. Otherwise, students may be forced to learn another tough lesson: There are no free lunches or tuition anymore, either.
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog