Georgia colleges 'purge' between 20,000 and 30,000 students a year over unpaid tuition

Hala Moddelmog is president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber. Alicia Philipp is president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. In this column, they tackle a topic we discussed recently on the blog -- the dearth of need-based college aid in Georgia.

The issue was discussed this week at a half-day forum at the Metro Atlanta Chamber offices in downtown Atlanta. Among the speakers at the "Forum on the Future: Georgia's Workforce Pipeline, College Affordability and the Impact of Needs-Based Financial Aid" were Chancellor Hank Huckaby and Chuck Knapp, president emeritus, University of Georgia.

By Hala Moddelmog & Alicia Philipp

With Georgia’s job growth out pacing the nation’s, it is imperative that students have access to in-demand education pathways and training necessary to fill these jobs. In the next four years, an estimated 60 percent of the jobs in our state will require at least a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree. But right now, only about 46 percent of the state’s core workforce is prepared at these levels.

That’s why our organizations—the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta— co-sponsored a high-level meeting for higher education leaders, lawmakers, national experts, and foundation executives Thursday. The message is clear: We must take steps to ensure students stay on track to graduate with in-demand degrees or certifications, and make postsecondary programs affordable for more Georgians.

In 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal set a goal to add 250,000 postsecondary degrees and certificates to the workforce by 2025. (That’s over and above the number that our state would normally produce.) Throughout the state, universities, technical schools, and community colleges have been working together to get more students across the graduation stage—and some progress has been made. As of this year, students have achieved about 74,000 of those credentials.

But that still leaves more than 175,000 degrees—or about 17,500 more per year.

Closing Georgia’s talent gap will require making sure that students’ credentials are aligned with the demands of the 21st century economy. A recent report by the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Accenture, "Your Talent, Your Future," found that students who do go to college aren’t pursuing the degrees and certificates that employers value. But more graduates, in the right fields, would mean more opportunities to close this gap.

It is no secret that money is the most significant barrier to postsecondary education. Countless Georgians never enroll in postsecondary programs because they don’t believe they can pay for them. And students who do start a postsecondary program are held to overly strict financial terms that don’t give them adequate time to pay their tuition bills. We can do better.

In fact, the number of Georgia students who are “purged” for not paying tuition bills is stunning: between 20,000 and 30,000 students each year, according to new data from the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia. The sums of money causing students to be dropped are small, often less than $1,000.

This is a problem that can be solved. Here’s the bottom line: Reaching our goal of adding 250,000 degree-holders by 2025 will be tremendously difficult without supporting these students with need-based financial aid.

We know this can be accomplished because our state has been a leader when it comes to funding higher education: Georgia was an early investor in merit-based financial aid. The HOPE scholarship program, launched over two decades ago, puts Georgia at the top when it comes to merit aid—and many thousands of students with demonstrated records of academic achievement have walked across the graduation stage as a result.

For those who are forced to leave behind their studies because of unmet financial need, small sums of money could make all the difference. A number of initiatives within the state are already working to break down barriers facing low-income degree-seekers, and in the process, they are displaying how need-based awards can enhance both opportunities and outcomes.

The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, for example, administers an important new scholarship program funded by the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation. The Achieve Atlanta scholarship is a need-based award for Atlanta Public School graduates who qualify for Pell grants (small federal awards for low-income postsecondary students). Launched this year, the program already has awarded 564 students scholarships of up to $5,000 for those enrolling at a four-year school, and $1,500 for those going to two-year colleges or technical programs.

Georgia State University in 2012 launched the Panther Retention Grant program, which provides “micro-grants” to students in danger of being purged from the rolls because they can’t afford to cover an unpaid balance on their account. It targets juniors and seniors who are nearing the completion of their degrees. To date, some 8,117 students have been able to stay at GSU because of the grants, which average around $900 each.

These are significant steps to address the problem, but much more must be done for our state to reach Gov. Deal’s goal. Nationally, Georgia is one of just two states that offers no need-based aid. A small amount could go a long way for hardworking students—and for our collective economic future.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.