An AJC news story this morning notes a slowdown in enrollment at the state’s public campuses, reporting that while the University System of Georgia enrolled a record number of students this fall, more than 318,000, the figure is only a 2.1 percent increase from fall 2010, the system’s smallest increase since 2005.
The details in the story will be used to frame the upcoming HOPE debate in the Legislature. You can see one side of that argument below in the essay by Stacey Evans, a legislator from Smyrna.
Also a dozen campuses are teaching fewer students. The colleges are scattered across the state and they tend to enroll more low-income students who are more likely to struggle to pay for college. System leaders predicted and welcomed a slowdown, saying it would make the annual influx of new students easier to manage. The system has gained about 48,000 students since fall 2007.
Officials couldn’t link enrollment changes to just one cause, but with about one-third of the system’s students depending on HOPE, changes to the award can’t be ignored. Lawmakers revamped the lottery funded scholarship last spring, decreasing the aid students receive to keep the program viable for future recipients. As a result, thousands of students are bridging a financial gap and must pay hundreds of additional dollars in tuition, books and fees.
This story is the ideal lead-in to this essay by state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, on the need to put more money into HOPE. Evans gave a powerful speech last year on the House floor role on HOPE in transforming her own life. I expect more speeches this year as HOPE will again be up for debate.
Evans is a first generation college graduate and HOPE scholar. She represents Georgia House District 40 and is a partner in the law firm of Wood, Hernacki & Evans, LLC.
By Rep. Stacey Evans
Growing up in rural Ringgold in north Georgia, the daughter of carpet mill workers, college seemed a remote possibility for me financially. My parents always pushed me to work hard, but they were worried about paying the rent and making sure my brother and I had dinner on the table. For me, the HOPE scholarship and other financial aid was a life line.
After many late nights of studying, my 3.8 GPA earned me a HOPE scholarship and admission to the University of Georgia. But I didn’t stop working. I continued staying up late – this time to waitress to supplement my financial aid – and waking up early to study.
My story has a happy ending: I became my family’s first college graduate, went on to law school and now mentor students through the hurdles of the college admissions process. I have seen too many students who struggle in situations even I could have never imagined. These are students like Atlanta teen Marlanna, who missed the SAT several times because her mother did not have transportation to drive her to the test. Everything from transportation and filling out applications online when you don’t have a computer, to obtaining immunization records and ordering transcripts are harder when you don’t have the financial resources or someone in your family who has been through it before. And that’s before you even get a tuition bill.
Marlanna was recently accepted to Georgia Perimeter College. She too has a happy ending. But there are many students who don’t and those happy stories will become fewer. The hurdles that Marlanna faced are unimaginable to most.
This last legislative session, the “reform” measures placed yet another hurdle in front of low income students. In response to declining lottery revenues, the HOPE scholarship program has changed. It is now more difficult to obtain a scholarship and those who do, receive a smaller reward.
That means thousands of Georgia students will delay college or not go at all as the dollars available for the HOPE scholarship continue to deteriorate. Other current recipients of HOPE funds may have to drop out and possibly even be in default because of a decline in their education money. And the situation is only expected to get worse.
By fiscal year 2013, the state is expected to wipe through reserve funds and be expected to make even larger cuts to the HOPE program. This is why it is essential that Georgia consider all new revenue sources to supplement lottery funds. Like others, I need more time to consider whether video lottery terminals in a centralized location is the best option. But it is certainly an option that should be considered. It is discouraging to know that some have immediately dismissed the idea before it can even be studied.
The purpose of HOPE was to make college a possibility for more students. It was never intended to simply make it easier for those who have the resources to go. Our state is better off if we have more college-educated students and the only way to meet that goal is to make college more of a possibility for a larger portion of the population. The current HOPE scholarship program does not do that.
If you grow up in a family with a household income of less than $36,000 a year, you have a less than 5 percent chance of going to college. On the other hand, if you grow up in a family with a household income of more than $95,000 a year, you have more than a 75 percent chance of going to college. HOPE was intended to change these figures so that the family you were born into did not determine whether you were going to college or not. Georgia will not climb the economic charts as a state by continuing to simply send children of college graduates to college – that is already done. We need more first-generation college students.
HOPE helps us achieve that goal because it makes college more affordable to more students. But now that HOPE has been slashed and will continue to deteriorate over time, the program’s goals are lost.
We need to spread a message of hope to these students that that we want to help them get to college, not place yet another hurdle in their way. We need to show students that we will not close our minds to new ways to fund their education – even if those ideas are different than the way we are used to doing things in Georgia.
It is a new way of thinking that brought us the HOPE scholarship and that has helped so many first generation college graduates. And I hope that Georgia is open-minded enough to realize that the HOPE scholarship is now in need of its own life line.
–Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog