A new report by the state Department of Audits and Accounts Performance Audit Division finds Georgia families paying a marked higher price for a college education, in large part due to the slashes to higher education and reductions to the HOPE Scholarship by the Legislature.
The audit of the University System of Georgia found the average cost of college attendance increased 77 percent, from $8,361 to $14,791 per year, between 2006 and 2015.
In addition to tuition increases, changes to the HOPE Scholarship and institution-level decisions to increase mandatory fees and expand auxiliary programs have also played a role in students' increased cost of attendance. The average HOPE Scholarship award decreased by 22 percent ($1,087 per year) and changes in eligibility criteria reduced the number of awards made. Additionally, USG institutions have increased mandatory fees, excluding the special institutional fee, by an average of $218 (75 percent) per semester from $292 to $510 since 2006. Increases in "elective" fees for auxiliary programs such as housing and dining have also had an impact on student costs…Typical housing expenses for USG students have increased 56 percent and typical dining expenses have increased 60 percent, both more than double the inflation rate. Despite these increases, the cost of attendance remains lower at most USG institutions than at peer institutions in other states.
While public colleges in Georgia may cost less than some other states, any comparisons have to acknowledge the greater percentage of financially strapped households here. Only six states have higher rates of people living below the poverty level, according to 2014 And 2015 U.S. Census data.
Georgia has 18.3 percent of its population below the poverty line, sharing 7th place with West Virginia and Tennessee. The poverty threshold, as designated by the Census Bureau, is $15,379 for a family of two, and $24,230 for a family of four, which translates into $296 and $466 a week respectively, before taxes.
While legislators contend HOPE offers a lifeline to low-income students, the audit found students suffered when the merit-based scholarship funded by the Georgia Lottery was reduced. Worried lottery proceeds would not meet rising demand, lawmakers in 2012 pared down HOPE, which originally covered 100 percent of tuition.
Now, HOPE is recalculated annually based on available lottery funds and underwrites a portion of tuition. For example, HOPE now covers 71 percent of the tuition at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The Legislature created a new elite category of HOPE, the Zell Miller Scholarship, which still pays full tuition for students who graduate high school with at least a 3.7 GPA and at least a 26 on the ACT or a 1200 on the SAT. Zell Miller scholars have to maintain a 3.3 college GPA. Neither Hope Lite nor Zell Miller contributes toward mandatory student fees and book expenses.
To raise revenue in response to dwindling state support, the USG created mandatory fees that are not covered by HOPE and fall directly on students, according to the audit:
Mandatory fees charged by USG institutions in fiscal year 2017 vary from $763 per semester at Valdosta State University to $202 at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus. Over the past 10 years, USG institutions have significantly increased mandatory fees by an average of $218 (75 percent) per semester from $292 to $510. These increases have varied at the USG institutions ranging from $368 (119 percent) at Savannah State University to $42 (26 percent) at the University of North Georgia-Gainesville. The addition or increase in mandatory fees has a cumulative impact on a student's total cost of attendance. For example, if a fee is increased by $100 per semester, it could increase the total cost of a four-year degree by as much as $800 if the student graduates within eight semesters.
As many of you have suggested in past blog discussions, the state's adulation of college sports plays a role in rising costs, according to the audit:
Athletic fees are often the highest mandatory fee at USG institutions. Currently, USG institutions charge an average $155 athletic fee per semester. Over the past 10 years, all USG institutions, with the exception of the University of Georgia and Bainbridge State College, have either added a new athletic fee or have increased existing athletic fees. These new or increased fees have increased student costs by an average of $66 per semester. Five institutions added an athletic fee to support newly established intercollegiate athletic programs increasing student costs from $83 at Dalton State College to $175 at Augusta University-Health Sciences campus. The remaining 23 USG institutions increased the fee for established intercollegiate athletic programs by $10 at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College to $137 at the College of Coastal Georgia...Georgia State University increased its fee from $142 to $357 per semester in fiscal year 2009 to fund the addition of an intercollegiate football program and to move from NCAA Division I-AA to Division I-A. The fee has since decreased to its current rate of $277 per semester.
The General Assembly will look at college costs and affordability this session. What would you suggest lawmakers do, if anything, about tuition and access?