Georgia lawmakers look to try again to increase need-based college aid

Georgia lawmakers could try again to make changes to the state's need-based college completion grant program in the upcoming legislative session. (AJC file photo)

Georgia lawmakers could try again to make changes to the state's need-based college completion grant program in the upcoming legislative session. (AJC file photo)

Georgia lawmakers plan to reexamine a proposal to expand need-based grants that help students who can’t afford to finish college.

The Georgia College Completion Grant program launched in 2022 after legislators authorized providing up to $2,500 to students who’ve completed 80% of their college credits and have a financial aid gap.

During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers pushed to broaden the program. They overwhelmingly passed a measure that would have bumped up the maximum award amount to $3,500 and made students eligible for aid earlier in their academic studies.

But Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed House Bill 249, which also included an unrelated veterans training program. In his veto statement, Kemp said he supports “veterans initiatives and making education more affordable” but said lawmakers “failed to fully fund these educational incentives.”

Now some lawmakers intend to try again to revamp the need-based aid program in this legislative session.

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, proposed tweaks during the 2023 legislative session to the state's need-based college completion grant program. (Bob Andres / AJC file photo)

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“I look for us to most certainly revisit the usability of it,” said Georgia House Higher Education Committee Chairman Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, who sponsored the bill in the last session.

Martin said he plans to keep working with the governor’s office on program tweaks that would lower the threshold for the amount of credits for eligibility and potentially boost award amounts to help students “get across the finish line.” A Kemp spokesman declined to comment out of “respect for the legislative process.”

Need-based college aid supporters such as Georgia State University junior Rhea Wunsch are eager to see the state provide more dollars to low-income students.

The Georgia Lottery funds the robust, merit-based HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships. But even though Wunsch receives that help with tuition, she said she’s taken out some student loans to help with other costs. She also works to pay for expenses such as textbooks and rent on the one-bedroom apartment she shares with a roommate.

Wunsch serves as a campus mobilization director for the advocacy group Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. She said some students end up leaving school so they can earn money to finish their degree.

“A lot of times, a semester-long gap can turn into never coming back,” she said.

During the completion grant program’s first year, from July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the state paid out just over $7.2 million of a $10 million budget, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

Just over 6,000 Georgia students received a grant. Nearly 80 public and private colleges and universities around the state are eligible to award funds to students, and schools have some flexibility to determine how students qualify for the assistance.

A commission spokeswoman said the agency is still evaluating the program’s first year.

So far in the second year, from July 1 to Dec. 11, about $3.7 million of the $10 million in grant funding has been paid out, the commission said.

The nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute studied the program’s first year of operation and suggested ways to improve it in a recently published report.

It recommended allowing students to receive grants earlier in their studies so they could take advantage of the funding before they were 80% complete with their degree. The report suggested, as a possibility, lowering the class credit requirement to 70% for students enrolled in a four-year program or 45% for a two-year program. The study noted that’s the same eligibility threshold proposed in the vetoed HB 249.

The report also suggested accounting for indirect college costs, such as off-campus housing, when determining a student’s financial gap and not just costs paid directly to the school.

Korynn Schooley, vice president of college access at Achieve Atlanta, recommended adjusting how the student finance commission determines the grant amounts that go to each college. Currently, a college’s allocation is based on the school’s previous percentage of HOPE Scholarship and Grant students. Schooley suggested linking the allocation instead to the school’s share of Pell Grant-eligible students, so that schools with more low-income students have access to more grant dollars.

Achieve Atlanta provides need-based college scholarships to Atlanta Public Schools graduates and also offers its own completion grant program to help those students finish college.

Need-based financial aid helps students graduate with the degrees required to get jobs, which in turn ensures the state has an educated workforce, said Schooley. Georgia is one of two states without broad need-based financial aid, she said.

“We come at this (with) just a recognition that college is really no longer affordable for many students in Georgia,” she said.

About the Georgia College Completion Grant

Date launched: July 1, 2022

Annual funding: $10 million

Amount awarded in first year: $7,258,515

Number of recipients in first year: 6,065

Maximum grant awarded per student: $2,500

Average grant awarded per student: $1,197

Number of colleges currently eligible to participate: 78

Sunset date for program: June 30, 2025

Source: Georgia Student Finance Commission