AJC reporter Laura Diamond is reporting that the slight rise in HOPE payouts this year is a result of fewer Georgia students receiving the scholarship as a result of state lawmakers making the award harder to earn and harder to keep.
I stand nearly alone on this issue here on the blog, but still contend that Georgia has to consider a need component to HOPE. On a personal level, I would love to see HOPE remain fully merit-based as I have twins who will be college bound in 2017.
But on a public policy level, I understand that Georgia must produce many more college graduates to remain economically competitive. And that means finding ways to prod more teens to consider going to college by making it economically feasible for them. (Research shows that finances play a significant role in preventing qualified kids from attending college.)
As it stands now, HOPE has a greater influence on where kids go to college rather than whether they go. Every economic forecast says that Georgia will not prosper without a surge in its college-educated population. You don’t get more college graduates by making it costlier to attend college.
Gov. Nathan Deal has touted good news for the HOPE scholarship — a proposal for higher award payouts and extra money for technical college students who study subjects in fields with worker shortages.
What isn’t being discussed is why Georgia can afford this. It’s because fewer students have HOPE.
During the 2011 fiscal year, 256,417 students received some form of the scholarship. A year later 202,906 students got it, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers the program.
“I expect to see another decrease this year,” said Tim Connell, president of the agency. “And while we may see it rebound slightly, I don’t know if we will see those large numbers again.”
In some ways this was the goal when Deal and lawmakers from both parties overhauled the popular lottery-funded program in 2011. HOPE was on track to run out of money this year before lawmakers made changes to the program, such as reducing award payouts and tightening eligibility criteria to decrease the number of recipients.
Deal’s proposal is possible because of a strong year for the Georgia Lottery, which provided about $55 million more for HOPE and pre-k programs. The other driver is a drop in expenses because fewer students qualify, Connell said.
The largest declines are with the HOPE Grant, which is mainly used by students in the Technical College System of Georgia. In 2011, 141,887 students received the grant. There were 98,790 recipients in 2012. Only 81,008 are projected to get it this fiscal year — a 43 percent drop in two years.
Nearly 9,000 students lost the award because they were unable to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average, a new rule lawmakers set when they overhauled the program. That requirement was already in place for students in the University System of Georgia.
Some students dropped out or didn’t enroll because they couldn’t afford to pay what HOPE no longer covered, said Ron Jackson, the commissioner of the Technical College System. At the same time, the system’s enrollment dropped by about 24,500 students to 170,860 last year.
Jackson described the change as “stunning and unexpected.” But he said the scholarship remains a good deal and that lawmakers had to overhaul the program to keep it going. “I think we need time to see how our students adjust beyond this first year,” he said. “Our students may have to adjust to covering a gap.”
Deal shared his concerns about the drop-off with Jackson, said Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman. Robinson said the state needs to understand why this occurred and “develop an action plan if the study shows a need for it.”
Others say an action plan is needed now. Democrats filed House Bill 54 and Senate Bill 59 to return the eligibility requirement for the HOPE grant to a 2.0 GPA. While the bills have some support from GOP lawmakers, Deal has so far refused to undo the changes made to the program.
Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, said the state’s economic health depends on the HOPE grant. Beyond harming students, the tighter requirements will leave businesses with fewer employees to hire and could make it harder for the state to attract businesses, he said. “To pretend this is a successful program is like pouring salt on the economic wound,” said Carter, who sponsored SB 59.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog