COLUMBUS, Ga. – When deciding to relocate to Georgia in 2005, a primary item in my family’s “pro” column was the state’s HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) Scholarship program.
With the governorship, a Senate seat, and all 236 seats in the Georgia legislature on the ballot this November, the fate of HOPE is a hot campaign issue. It may also be one of the more difficult to address, both politically and fiscally.
It was an issue that Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal was willing to discuss with me after an appearance at a recent candidate forum.
“I certainly hope we can keep HOPE alive,” Deal said, immediately indicating he was not trying to make light of an issue he recognizes as important to many Georgia families.
“These scholarship funds allow many students who could not otherwise afford a college education the ability to get one,” he said.
The program is one of the most popular government initiatives in the state, currently providing assistance solely based on academic merit.
HOPE offers scholarships to Georgia residents with at least a 3.0 grade point average and no drug-related felony convictions. The non-repayable scholarship is provided through funding by the state-run lottery and covers 100% of tuition costs at state colleges and universities, as well as an allotment for books and certain fees. Limited awards are also made to students attending in-state private institutions.
Initially, the program only served households with annual incomes of less than $66,000 per year. It was subsequently expanded to annual incomes of less than $100,000; and, eventually, income limitations were removed entirely.
Deal does not support reinstating the income cap as some lawmakers have suggested.
“HOPE was always intended to be merit based,” he said. “If we place a cap on a family’s income in order to qualify, we risk losing some of our most brilliant students.”
Deal ties the continuation of scholarship awards to students of merit as a significant element in enticing new business to the state.
“(HOPE) keeps those brilliant students in our state. Surveys suggest that the majority of students ultimately settle within 50 miles of where they attend college. We need these trained graduates to remain in the Georgia workforce if we are going to attract businesses here.”
That may be true, but the underfunded program has to be reined in somewhere. In 2004, lawmakers made a perfunctory attempt to address the program’s financial problems with minor changes to HOPE qualifications. Book allowances for the 2010-2011 year have been cut from the previous $300 per semester to $150. It has not been enough to stem the hemorrhaging.
“We have to raise revenue,” said Deal. But that may be easier said than done.
Georgia’s lottery has reported a year-over-year increase in revenue for the past 12 years. Still, it has not been able to outrun the steeply rising costs of the HOPE Scholarship and state Pre-K programs it is responsible for funding. The Georgia Board of Regents’ increase in state tuition this year, substantially more than in previous years, requires an additional outlay of several hundred dollars per each HOPE recipient. The Georgia Student Finance Commission, the entity that oversees administration of the program, reports more than 100,000 students have qualified for the 2010-2011 year.
One element of the program that warrants consideration is how merit is determined. High school seniors must earn a 3.0 grade point average, computed on all core course work, in order to be granted HOPE. Not all classes qualify for the calculation. No such restriction applies for college-level courses, allowing students to balance their schedules with core and superfluous classes in order to achieve a qualifying GPA.
Deal indicated that he would support a review of GPA calculations as one measure to ensure that HOPE continued to be distributed based on true merit and not a manipulation of the system.
Regardless of November’s outcome, Georgia’s new governor and its legislature are going to face some hard choices if they are going to keep HOPE in place. Otherwise, Georgia families, including my own, may not be able to continue to depend on HOPE to fully fund our children’s tuition costs, a travesty that could cost us all dearly in the end.