Savannah resident Sklyar Huggett used the HOPE Career Grant to pay for her studies at Savannah Technical College to become a welder. PHOTO CREDIT: TECHNICAL COLLEGE SYSTEM OF GEORGIA.

As HOPE marks 25 years, some say changes could aid more students

It was Skylar Huggett’s second chance, and she knew she had to get it right this time.

Huggett earned a HOPE Scholarship to attend Armstrong State University but, as she put it, she “enjoyed the social aspects of college a little too much.” Huggett’s grades fell below the eligibility requirements — a B average — for the program, and she lost her scholarship in her first semester.

Two years ago, Huggett enrolled at Savannah Technical College. She paid her tuition through a HOPE Career Grant,a different program created to train students for high-demand careers. She wanted to be a welder, like some of her family members. Huggett completed the 18-month program last year with a 4.0 grade-point average.

“I pushed myself,” Huggett, 27, of Savannah, explained. “I knew I had to get this. I knew it was my last option.”

State officials want to see more stories like Huggett’s and are investing millions of dollars a year to encourage more students to take a first or second chance at HOPE.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the first scholarships offered through the HOPE program, funded by Georgia Lottery proceeds. While state data shows six consecutive years of more money awarded in scholarships, some say there are issues that must be addressed to make the HOPE program more beneficial to students and cost-effective.

Scholarship money is still below its peak because the number of grants awarded to pursue careers in industries where workers are needed has declined significantly in recent years. Some say Georgia should dip into its half-billion dollar HOPE reserve fund to aid more students.

Yet 40 percent of HOPE recipients lose the scholarship in their first year.

In fiscal year 2011, more than $747 million was awarded through HOPE to students pursuing their college education or certificates to work in various professions. In fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30, the total was about $672.4 million, according to Georgia Student Finance Commission data. The new data was released last month and shared with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, believes HOPE could receive an additional $50 million a year if lawmakers tweak the current law regarding how much money from the lottery goes to scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs.

Cowsert introduced a bill last year to gradually increase the percentage of lottery proceeds that goes to the state treasury, to increase funding for HOPE. Ideally, he says the total would be 30 percent. Currently, about 26 percent of the money goes to HOPE and pre-kindergarten programs. About 63 percent is earmarked for prize money with the rest going to administrative and other costs.

The bill passed in the state Senate, but failed in the state House of Representatives.

Some state leaders worry any significant changes to the current law may result in reduced lottery sales. Georgia Lottery officials said via email a fixed percentage of proceeds to the state “risks declining dollars to HOPE and pre-k.”

“I haven’t given up on the idea,” said Cowsert, former chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee. “I believe I’m right.”

Jennifer Lee, higher education policy analyst for the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, also believes a greater share of lottery proceeds should be used for scholarships.

“It would be worthwhile to look at increasing the percentage,” she said.

State Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, chairman of the House’s Higher Education committee, believes the state should move slowly in making any changes.

“I want to give (the Georgia Lottery) that flexibility to meet the needs of what we’ve promised Georgians,” he said.

For now, no major changes are planned to HOPE, but that could change depending on November’s gubernatorial election.

The HOPE Scholarship, spearheaded a quarter-century ago by Gov. Zell Miller, was widely considered one of the most innovative initiatives in the nation to educate more college students. Georgians could attend college tuition-free, as long as they had the grades (a 3.0 grade-point average or better) before enrolling in college and kept up those grades. The tuition was funded by lottery money. A portion of the money also goes to pre-kindergarten programs. More than 1.8 million students have received a scholarship or grant since the program started.

In 2011, state leaders changed the requirements amid fears HOPE was in financial peril after the Great Recession. Today, students must still have a minimum B average, but the requirements also include taking at least four academically rigorous courses before college.

HOPE now covers about 90 percent of tuition for most public colleges and universities. The Zell Miller Scholarship, which requires students to have a minimum 3.7 grade-point average, covers all tuition costs at public state colleges.

Several states mimicked Georgia’s HOPE program. National research and studies have found Georgia’s program offers near the highest average award and serves the largest number of students.

HOPE’s 25th anniversary is bittersweet. Miller, its architect and chief defender, died in March. Gov. Nathan Deal, who said he had doubts about HOPE a quarter-century ago, got emotional at a celebration in June. Deal said he’s glad he was wrong about HOPE.

“Everybody knows what it’s meant to Georgia,” said Jasperse.

Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson spoke of the benefits of the program in his annual speech to students and staff last month . At one point, 75 percent of Georgia high school students who had a combined SAT score of 1400 or better left the state for college, he said. Today, Peterson said, 75 percent of those students attend in-state colleges “because of the HOPE Scholarship.”

Buford resident Erica Gwyn is one of those Georgians who stayed here because of the scholarship. She considered going to college in another state but earned a HOPE Scholarship and attended the University of Georgia. Today, Gwyn, 41, serves on the Women of UGA Leadership Council, which works to provide need-based scholarships for students. It upsets her when she cannot persuade an academically gifted student to stay in the Peach State.

Gwyn said of a student who chose Harvard over going to college in Georgia, “We should have kept him here.”

Georgia Student Finance Commission interim president Caylee Noggle said that group encourages students upon entering high school to meet with their guidance counselor to determine which courses to take to get a scholarship.

About $615 million last fiscal year was awarded in HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships, state data shows.

One problem, though, is what initially happened to Huggett. About 40 percent of HOPE Scholarship recipients lose it in the first year, noted state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, the Senate’s Higher Education committee chairman. Millar wants to add a minimum SAT or ACT score requirement for HOPE and, possibly, a need-based scholarship for low-income students. Millar acknowledged the ideas will need the support of the next governor, “so we’ll see.”

Other ongoing proposals to make HOPE more beneficial to students have included reducing Georgia Lottery administrative costs. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in partnership with the Hechinger Report, last year reported on how some want Georgia to dip into its growing HOPE reserve fund to provide more scholarships. State leaders decide how much money is set aside through the budget process. The fund was $549 million at the end of fiscal year 2017.

Jasperse said Georgia must be careful with the account.

“The reserve fund has to be healthy because if the economy was to have a downturn, we would burn through it pretty quickly,” he said.

In recent years, Deal has pushed programs such as the HOPE Career Grant to train more career-ready employees for high-demand industries. He’s offered free tuition to those who study for careers such as aviation maintenance, welding, movie production/set design and early childhood education. However, the number of grants approved under the HOPE Career Grant and the Zell Miller Grant have plummeted since the recession, from 308,079 in 2011 to 97,382 in 2018, according to state data. The amount of money awarded to students during that time frame dropped from $205.4 million to $56.8 million, the data shows.

State officials attribute some of the changes to the economy. As Georgia’s and the nation’s economy have rebounded after the recession, fewer students nationally are going to college, choosing the workforce.

“Unfortunately, it’s a negative side effect of a good economy,” said Chris Riley, Deal’s chief of staff.

Lee, of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, released an analysis last month on the grant programs. The institute’s suggestions include extending the grant from its current 17 programs to all technical certificate and diploma programs.

Huggett said some classmates were paying for courses out of their own pockets, others through military programs and a few through the HOPE grant program. She’s used her second chance at HOPE to find a job at a facility in her hometown. She has health care benefits, paid vacation and life insurance. It’s a long way from her recent past of working as many as 15-hour days waitressing.

“I feel completely satisfied because every base is covered,” she said of her life.