One way to gauge a government program’s popularity is by how far politicians are willing to stretch the truth to argue they are that program’s strongest defenders. By that measure, the HOPE scholarship must be the most beloved program in all of Georgia.
A year after a broad reform of HOPE — one that accepted lottery revenues had plateaued while tuition levels soared — the scholarship suddenly is being hotly debated again. The apparent impetus is a state agency’s report forecasting falling HOPE award levels during the next several years.
Given that such forecasts accompanied last year’s reform, however, one can’t help but sense political opportunism. And some truth-stretching.
Democrats in the state Senate are agitating to re-revamp HOPE. (House Democrats have little leg to stand on here, because they were very public participants in crafting last year’s legislation.) Their pitch is that the “old” HOPE — covering 100 percent of tuition costs — could be restored, if only the state implemented an income cap.
A not-too-low income cap, mind you. Just a little ol’ income cap that would only affect the highest-earning Georgia households.
The Democrats’ chief claim is that, by imposing a household income cap of $140,000 on HOPE recipients, about 92 percent of eligible students this fall could have their tuition at state universities fully covered. (They sometimes say 94 percent, but the audit report they cite actually puts it at 92 percent.) Under the 2011 reform, most of those HOPE scholars will have less than 70 percent of their tuition covered unless they qualify for the new Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers it completely.
The Democrats’ claim is correct — if, that is, we include HOPE students at the state’s technical schools and private colleges. But at the 35 schools in the University System of Georgia, from Georgia Tech to Georgia Perimeter, a cap of $140,000 would have meant cutting out one in six HOPE scholars in 2010, according to the most recent state audit (which you can download here). That includes one in three HOPE recipients at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.
Worse, even those figures wouldn’t hold up very long. Within three years — assuming current trends about lottery revenues and the growth of eligible students and tuition, as well as assuming all of HOPE’s available financial reserves were used — the cap would fall to $120,000.
A year later, it would fall still further, to $100,000.
Before the end of the decade, it could sit as low as $80,000.
A cap of $140,000 might include the vast majority of HOPE recipients, but here’s an idea of who in metro Atlanta would be excluded by a cap of $100,000, according to the most recent wage statistics compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics:
If the cap were at $80,000, it would be too low for:
Neither these average wages nor the income caps are adjusted for inflation. So the effect of an income cap would only grow in the future.
In fact, with a $100,000 cap, about one-third of all HOPE students in public colleges in 2010 — including half at Tech and UGA — would have lost the scholarship.
At $80,000, we’d have been talking about two in five at all state colleges and universities. Lest anyone think the impact is only great at the state’s most selective colleges: About 20 percent of students at Georgia’s two-year schools, would have lost HOPE with such a cap.
No matter how you rearrange the program, the math is brutally unyielding.
Again, it’s true that current law also means reductions, in the proportion of tuition a HOPE scholarship will cover. And again, that reality was known when the reform passed last year.
Democrats are free to argue HOPE should cover everything for fewer and fewer people, rather than covering less and less for everyone. But they at least ought to acknowledge that’s what their proposal would do.
– By Kyle Wingfield