Is HOPE Scholarship lifting middle-class students while leaving poor kids behind?

Georgia is purging thousands of students from college rolls because they can't pay tuition. Is need-based aid the answer? KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Georgia is purging thousands of students from college rolls because they can't pay tuition. Is need-based aid the answer? KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Georgia has thousands of low-income students who cannot afford college because they don't qualify for the HOPE Scholarship or its more lucrative offspring, the Zell Miller Scholarship. HOPE pays for 70 to 85 percent of tuition depending on which public campus students attend, while Zell Miller covers full tuition.

Confronted with this problem, many Georgians insist the solution is prodding low-income kids to work harder in high school so they can win one of these merit scholarships. Middle-class parents point out they insisted their kids had to make at least a 3.0 GPA in high school to earn HOPE. (It takes a 3.7 GPA to win a Zell Miller Scholarship and at least a 26 on the ACT and 1,200 on the SAT.)

Policy experts offer a different tack: Georgia ought to give out more financial aid based on student need rather than academics. And they cite an economic rationale: The state of Georgia needs a highly educated workforce to thrive and that means producing more first-generation college graduates.

One of those experts is Claire Suggs, who reviewed state aid data for a new Georgia Budget & Policy Institute analysis and found only 30 percent of low-income students in the university system get either HOPE or Zell Miller, compared to 42 percent of middle- and upper-income students.

About 20 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students earn one of the two scholarships, versus 46 percent of Asian-American and 45 percent of white students. While white students make up 64 percent of HOPE Scholars and 78 percent of Zell Miller Scholars, they account for only 54 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

A senior education policy analyst, Suggs says closing the disparity is not as simple as encouraging lower-income students to work harder to strengthen their report cards. Students in poverty face far greater obstacles, beginning with less language skills and more health and stress risks. They go to underfunded schools with less experienced teachers and have fewer adults helping them figure out how to apply to college and how to pay for it. The solution cannot only be telling them to push themselves more, says Suggs.

"If we are going to have a robust economic future for whole state, we have to make sure we are not leaving students behind. If we are leaving wide swaths of kids behind, the state will suffer," says Suggs.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, has taken up the cause of low-income students, citing her own hardscrabble background as the child of carpet mill workers and the important role HOPE played in enabling her to attend the University of Georgia.

She ticks off the common arguments against creating a needs-based program, including the contention kids can just work their way through school. Students are working, says Evans, explaining roughly 80 percent of college students have a job. "It used to be a student could work part-time during the summer and earn enough to pay tuition. In 2013, it took 991 hours -- a full-time job for half the year -- to accomplish the same. And that wouldn’t cover fees, books and housing," she says.

Why can't these kids get loans? "Students are already taking on debt. Georgia is ninth in the nation for students with loan debt and we are ranked second in the amount of debt per student," she says. Don't really poor kids qualify for federal Pell grants? “Pell isn’t what it used to be. The maximum award is $5,775 a year," she says.

Even with HOPE, some Georgians still need more aid since the scholarship does not pay for room and board or books and fees, which can add up to $15,000 a year. "We realize the escalating costs of post-secondary education are causing tremendous burdens on families. And options are being reviewed as we speak by the Legislature," said Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Fran Millar, a Republican senator from Dunwoody. "We have to do something."

According to the GBPI study: "Low-income HOPE scholars in the university system are more vulnerable to losing the scholarship. Nearly 47 percent of low-income HOPE scholars lose their scholarship compared to about 39 percent of non-poor HOPE scholars. Losing HOPE has a greater effect on low-income students than their better-off peers. About 44 percent of these students graduated while 58 percent of non-poor HOPE scholars who also lost the scholarship completed their degrees."

Many years ago, research revealed HOPE was largely going to middle-class high school students on track all their lives to attend college, so the merit scholarship didn't influence whether students went to college, but where they went.

The imperative now is different: Get more kids into college for whom higher education was not a birthright. Evans points out Georgia is already sending most of its higher income kids to college; the shortfall in educated workers can't be made up from students in those income levels.  The state has to get more of its low-income students into college.

And more Georgia students are low-income, a fact often glossed over the Legislature and governor.  In 2007, "economically disadvantaged" students became the majority in Georgia's public schools. By 2014, they comprised 62 percent of enrollment. Last year, the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation reported that 51 percent of public school students in America were from low-income households in 2013 and that Georgia had the seventh largest proportion, at 60 percent.

This is the challenge facing Georgia: At the same its students are growing poorer, they must become better educated for their own sake and that of the state. This requires not only getting more of them into college, but more of them prepared for college.

No one is suggesting tampering with HOPE.  In its report, GBPI recommends a new comprehensive, statewide need-based aid program. While there is some need-based aid now, it hardly meets demand as the study shows:



While the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute report doesn't deal with how to fund a new need-based program, Suggs says, "There are revenue options. It could be ending tax breaks that aren’t effective or looking at increasing taxes on cigarettes. We need a more coherent approach to tax reform. There are options lawmakers can consider if they see this as something that is really important."

That's the question: Do they?