AJC On Campus: Georgia bills aim to modify HOPE Scholarship, raise cap on college savings plan

Handful of bills impacting Georgia college students make the cut amid critical legislative deadline
Lobbyists and lawmakers bustle near the south steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during Crossover Day. Thursday's legislative session was the last day for a bill to move from one chamber to another. Photo by Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Lobbyists and lawmakers bustle near the south steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during Crossover Day. Thursday's legislative session was the last day for a bill to move from one chamber to another. Photo by Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Two bills impacting how Georgia students pay for college were among the many measures to move forward on Crossover Day, a crucial legislative deadline in the General Assembly.

One bill pertains to how much money families can save in a special account for their child’s college costs. Another proposal would allow students to use HOPE Scholarship money to pay for graduate-level courses.

The two measures are in addition to a handful of higher education bills that previously passed at least one chamber. Thursday marked the day during this year’s legislative session when bills must win passage in at least one of the two chambers in order to potentially become law.

In this Crossover Day edition of our AJC On Campus roundup, we look at some bills that could impact higher education that made the cut.

College savings plan tweaks

The Georgia Senate on Thursday passed Senate Bill 469, which would revise the maximum amount that can be contributed per beneficiary to the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan, otherwise known as a 529 Plan.

Money saved in the account can be used for college and other eligible expenses. Savings grow tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualified expenses are tax-free.

Georgia’s college savings plan has one of the nation’s lowest contribution limits at $235,000 per child.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, would allow that cap to be set at “a reasonable maximum amount” as determined by the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan Board of Directors. The legislation calls for the board to set the new limit “based on current and anticipated education expenses.”

Supporters said the update is needed to keep up with the rising cost of college. Esteves told fellow lawmakers Thursday that Georgia hasn’t raised its cap since the plan was created more than two decades ago. This update would allow the limit to go up over time, and the amount would be tied to the cost to attend the state’s highest-cost school, Emory University, he said.

HOPE for graduate classes

The Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday unanimously passed House Bill 1231, which would allow students to use their HOPE Scholarship on graduate-level courses.

The merit-based tuition scholarship, which is funded by the Georgia Lottery, expires after students have reached 127 semester hours or 190 quarter hours, or earned a four-year degree.

The proposal would allow students who are concurrently seeking both a bachelor’s degree and their first professional degree to use HOPE to help pay for those graduate credits. It also would allow students who have remaining HOPE credits after receiving a bachelor’s degree to use them for graduate courses so long as they begin that graduate program within 18 months.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said the bill he’s sponsoring would help “some of our most motivated and academically gifted students.”

It’s usually more expensive to earn graduate-level credits than undergraduate credits. The scholarship would cover students’ tuition costs based on the undergraduate rate, and students taking graduate-level credits would make up the difference, Holcomb said.

Need-based college aid

A measure to relax eligibility rules so Georgia college students can get need-based aid earlier in their studies was passed by the House on Feb. 22. House Bill 1124 now awaits consideration by the Senate.

The bill would modify the Georgia College Completion Grant Program, which launched in 2022 and provides up to $2,500 per student to those who can’t afford to finish college.

The legislation would allow students to get financial aid after completing 70% of a four-year degree or 45% of a two-year degree. Currently, a student must have finished 80% of their program. The change is intended to make the grants more usable.

If approved, the bill would also extend the program for two more years to June 30, 2027.

Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed a bill last year that would have similarly lowered the credit eligibility threshold while also increasing the award amount. That bill also included an unrelated veterans training program. In his veto, Kemp said lawmakers failed to fully fund the initiatives.

College transfers

Last Monday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 399, which would require additional reporting and encourage more coordination between the University System of Georgia and the Technical System of Georgia. The goal is to make it easier for students to transfer between Georgia’s public colleges and complete their degrees.

The bill would require a report every two years on approved courses that can be transferred between the two systems and a summary of efforts to reduce barriers to graduation, among other items.

Only 1 in 10 Georgia students who start at two-year colleges transfer to four-year schools and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to recent data from a group of organizations, including the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

Student loan repayments for police

Last year, time ran out on House Bill 130, which would repay up to $20,000 over five years in student loans for eligible, full-time Georgia police officers. This year, the House and Senate both approved the legislation with plenty of time to spare.

The bill now awaits the signature of Kemp, who has backed the proposal. Officials said it will help with police recruitment and retainment.

To be eligible for loan help, applicants must have become employed as a Georgia police officer for the first time on or after Jan. 1, 2024, and have completed an undergraduate degree program. Or, they must be working as a police officer in Georgia for at least a year and be enrolled in a criminal justice program.

Officials previously said the program has a first-year budget of just over $3 million.

Abolishing a public corporation

Also earlier in February, the House passed House Bill 985, which would abolish one of three entities overseen by the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

The Georgia Higher Education Assistance Corporation was founded in 1965 to support a federal student loan program that no longer exists. Getting rid of it would free up roughly $28 million for other higher education programs, officials said.

This is the second year in a row lawmakers have pushed to abolish the program. An attempt last year failed when the governor vetoed legislation that included an unrelated proposal. The Senate Higher Education Committee recommended passage of the bill at its last meeting before Crossover Day.

If you have any higher education tips or thoughts, email reporter Vanessa McCray at vanessa.mccray@ajc.com.