Opinion: Georgia must provide more need-based aid to college students

Tina Fernandez is the founding executive director of Achieve Atlanta, which works to ensure that more Atlanta students go to college and earn a degree. Starting in January, she will serve as a fellow with the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative focusing on the impacts of trauma on leadership development, particularly for Latinas and women of color.

In a guest column today, Fernandez urges the General Assembly to increase need-based aid for college students.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Get Schooled blog asked Georgia advocates for children and schools to explain what they would like to see state lawmakers tackle — or avoid — this upcoming legislative session. Rather than a laundry list, we asked for specific recommendations and advice that they believe will improve children’s lives or student outcomes. This is the fifth of six guest columns.

You can find the others here.

By Tina Fernandez

Our state’s economic future and the future of hundreds of thousands of young Georgians and their families depend on more of our historically underserved students earning postsecondary degrees.

From 1980 to 2019, college costs increased by 169%, while earnings for young workers rose by only 19% (according to a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce). Higher education has, effectively, become a luxury good that fewer people can afford. We want a different Georgia — one where all children have access to education and opportunity-filled lives.

Georgia needs more people earning postsecondary degrees

For Georgia’s economic future, we need more young people to earn postsecondary degrees — particularly bachelor’s degrees. This is crucial both to build the workforce we need for the state’s future and to see more families lifted into the middle and upper-middle classes.

The economic picture is clear: By 2025, more than 60% of jobs in Georgia will require some form of postsecondary education, according to Complete College Georgia (CCG). This is often a bachelor’s degree but could be a certificate or associate degree. Yet, CCG notes, only 47.9% of the state’s young adults currently have one of these credentials.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

We need to significantly increase the number of Georgia residents who earn postsecondary degrees. And paying for those degrees is one of the barriers we must help students overcome. In the University System of Georgia, 42% of students reported that they received no financial support from parents or guardians, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy institute. For many Georgia students, the total price to attend college is, on average, $20,000 a year. This far exceeds family financial resources and, in some cases, yearly family incomes.

Georgia is one of only two states in the country that does not provide broad need-based financial aid to college students. The HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships are merit-based awards that have been positive additions, encouraging many students to stay in-state for their postsecondary studies. However, HOPE hasn’t been able to dramatically increase the number of students enrolling in or completing college. Among the students Achieve Atlanta serves — those in Atlanta Public Schools — only about one-third of graduates are eligible for these scholarships.

Provide more need-based financial aid

Georgia needs to provide more need-based financial aid for postsecondary education. Although Georgia has made some efforts to offer specialized need-based aid to niche populations, these programs don’t even begin to serve all students with financial needs.

For example, last year, the state Legislature took steps to target more state resources to those with financial need. House Bill 1435 created a need-based financial aid program for postsecondary students who have earned at least 80% of the credits needed toward their credential and demonstrate financial need. The state allocated $10 million to fund this program during 2023. The bill and its funding passed with broad political support, including from Gov. Brian Kemp. While we applaud these efforts, this bill will serve only 4,000 students across the state.

Need-based completion grants are a first step, but the state must do more if we hope to benefit from growing the portion of our population with college credentials.

Need-based scholarships work

In 2014, only 14% of ninth grade students in Atlanta Public Schools were projected to earn a postsecondary credential of any kind within six years of their high school graduation. This low degree attainment represented an economic crisis. Achieve Atlanta was founded in 2015 to help more Atlanta Public Schools students access, afford, and earn postsecondary credentials. Providing need-based funding to offset college costs is at the core of our approach, along with advising supports and other services. We run the largest need-based scholarship program in the state.

Through our work, Achieve Atlanta and our partners have demonstrated that, when students are given the right funding assistance and support services, more of them attend and complete college. We have served more than 5,100 Achieve Atlanta Scholars since our founding, providing more than $40 million in scholarship funds. Nearly all of our scholars — 94% — are Black or Latino, and 51% are first-generation college students. All of them experience low income.

Students who receive our scholarships and support services are 11 percentage points more likely to persist in college than similar peers who did not receive the Achieve Atlanta Scholarship, according to independent research by Georgia State University’s Georgia Policy Labs. (Achieve Atlanta partially funded the study, provided necessary data, and shared feedback on the report, but did not have control of the report’s methods or results.) Our first cohort of scholars entered college six years ago. As of last fall, 955 Achieve Atlanta Scholars had earned a degree or credential.

The study also shows that our scholars are graduating within four years at a rate 5 percentage points higher than similar non-scholars. These results are most concentrated among students with high school GPAs that may not qualify them for the merit-based HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships.

Legislation and funding should support broad need-based college scholarships

This study of Achieve Atlanta’s model is one piece of a growing body of research showing that both financial aid and targeted services are needed to increase college completion rates. In Georgia, most students do not have access to either. Let’s start with broad, need-based state aid to help more Georgia students afford a postsecondary credential.

The state’s budget should reflect its priorities, and workforce development should be a priority. For the jobs of today and, even more so, the jobs of the future, our workforce will need a college degree or other type of postsecondary credential.

Over the years, many advocates across Georgia have called for more need-based aid for postsecondary education. This coming year, I call on the state Legislature to craft legislation and allocate funds to support a broad, need-based scholarship program.

While money is not the only component of efforts to see more Georgians earn postsecondary credentials, it is a crucial component. Let’s change our state’s status as one of only two that provides no broad need-based college aid.