In the United States, we have long taken pride in trying to provide equality of opportunity, if not outcome. Whether you come from a poor family or rich family, we have long believed that in America, hard work would be rewarded.
That’s no longer the case. Repeated studies have found that the United States now trails other countries, including much of Europe, in the ability to move up the economic ladder. We now rank with Great Britain as having one of the most rigid economic structures in the industrialized world, with decreasing economic mobility.
One explanation for that change is access to college, especially in a global economy in which education is critical. In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan took a look at college completion rates across economic groups. For Americans born between 1979 and 1982, just 9 percent of those born into poor households finished college, while 54 percent of those born into the richest 20 percent of households completed their degree.
There are a lot of reasons for that differential, including lower high-school graduation rates among poorer households. But in light of how fast the cost of college has risen in recent years, economics has to be a major factor.
Today, members of the Georgia Legislature are debating these topics with a great deal of passion as they wrangle over the future of the state’s troubled HOPE scholarship program. Lottery-ticket sales have not kept pace with the cost of higher education, making it financially impossible for the state to continue to cover all tuition costs for high-achieving students.
In general, Democrats argue in favor of making the program both need-based and merit-based. Senate Democrats, for example, propose a formula that this year would limit the scholarship to academically qualified students from households making less than $140,000. For those students — 94 percent of those academically eligible — it would cover 100 percent of state tuition.
Republicans, in general, oppose adding any means test to the program. Rather than bar high-income households from collecting the benefit, their general approach is to balance the HOPE budget by lowering the amount of money it provides to each recipient regardless of income.
But let’s be honest about this: A good student in a household with an income of $140,000 or better is going to college, and probably a good college, regardless of whether the HOPE is available. HOPE provides a nice little financial benefit to his or her parents, but that’s it.
In fact, let’s extend that honesty a little further: Drive through the parking lots at the University of Georgia, and you’ll see a lot of new automobiles purchased for students by affluent parents pleased that they don’t have to make tuition payments thanks to HOPE. You have to wonder whether subsidized auto purchases represent the best use of increasingly scarce scholarship dollars.
Back when HOPE was created by then-Gov. Zell Miller, it was available only to those students with a household income of less than $66,000, a number quickly raised to $100,000. That would be about $155,000 today. He called it HOPE, he said, because it offered hope “for bright students who otherwise would find it difficult to go to college.” Miller made it clear that he envisioned it as a program that would give poor and middle-class Georgians an opportunity that they might otherwise not enjoy.
That remains the program’s most important function.
– Jay Bookman