Bill would make more Georgia students eligible for need-based aid

It could be a bit easier for Georgia’s low-income college students to receive need-based financial aid under new legislation filed this week.

House Bill 249, introduced by Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, would allow students to apply earlier in their academic studies for so-called “completion grants” aimed at helping students get to graduation.

Last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 1435, which provided up to $2,500 in need-based financial aid to undergraduate students to help pay for their final credits. To receive the assistance, students had to have earned at least 80% of the credits they needed to complete their degrees.

Martin’s new proposal would expand the eligibility criteria so that students could qualify for help after finishing just 70% of their credit requirements for a four-year program or 45% of their credits for a two-year program.

Officials said the 80% credit requirement has proven to not always be a practical threshold for the pace at which students earn credits. Students may accumulate 75% of their credits by the end of their third year, at which point they may be trying to figure out how to pay for their final year.

Students in two-year programs likely wouldn’t hit the 80% credit threshold until partway through their final year.

By tweaking the program’s credit requirements, more students could participate.

“The idea is to make it more usable,” said Martin, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.

The program’s budget in its first year is $10 million, but to date, only about $3 million has been used because of the limitations, Martin said. The legislation became law in July.

Lawmakers could have further conversations about how much to fund the program next year. They also could discuss whether to change the current maximum award amount per student, currently set at $2,500.

Georgia is one of just two states that lacks a wide-scale need-based financial aid program, according to experts. The state’s HOPE scholarship program is merit-based.

Advocates, including the scholarship organization Achieve Atlanta, have urged the state to provide more financial aid specifically for those students who struggle the most to pay for college.

“While Achieve Atlanta would like to see even further expansion of need-based aid to support more students in Georgia, this adjustment will open eligibility to additional students within the existing completion grant program,” said Korynn Schooley, the group’s vice president of college access, in an email.