HOPE, Zell Miller scholarships don’t benefit most, analysis finds

A study released today shows the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships remain a boon to middle-class white students, while still out of reach for many students from low-income families.

The data analysis by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute finds less than half of Georgia students seeking two- or four-year college degrees benefit from the merit-based HOPE and the Zell Miller scholarships. Only 30 percent of low-income students get either of the scholarships, compared to 42 percent of middle- and upper-income students. About 20 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students get either HOPE or Zell Miller, versus 46 percent of Asian-American and 45 percent of white students.

The study is likely to further the intensifying discussion about whether Georgia ought to offer need-based aid to boost college attendance of its low-income students, a recommendation GBPI casts as an economic imperative. Too many low-income students who don’t qualify for merit aid are falling to the wayside, according to the study, which estimates about 13,000 students were dropped by the University System from fall 2014 to fall 2015 because they couldn’t pay tuition and fees.

"There is a growing recognition that certainly right now we don't have the workforce we need for strong economic growth in the future and we can't fill the highly skilled jobs we already have," said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst for the institute. "We are looking at a K-12 system that is increasingly poor and increasingly diverse so this problem is not going to go away."

Republican Sen. Fran Millar, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, agreed, saying Wednesday, "In the next five years, we need 200,000 more people who have post-secondary credentials, certificates, associate's and bachelor's degrees, to fill the jobs we are creating. We have got to find solutions to get first-time people in a family going to technical college or four-year college. With the current course of action, we are not getting there. That is the reason for the urgency of this in the Legislature."

It is not enough to urge low-income students to work harder to qualify for HOPE, said Suggs, noting the academic struggles linked to growing up poor. Children are more likely to lag in language development, suffer greater health issues and attend K-12 schools with the least experienced teachers. “The inequities that build throughout their K-12 careers create incredible hurdles and I don’t think ‘work harder’ is going to answer all of this,” said Suggs.

Citing data showing few low-income college students graduate compared to higher-income peers, State Rep. Stacey Evans, D- Smyrna, said, "If you want to grow the number of students seeking higher education, you are going to have to grow it from those from lower family incomes. The only way to do that is to provide needs-based aid so these students see college as a more viable option for them. I'm hopeful the General Assembly will see that providing some sort of needs-based aid is critical if we want the qualified workforce necessary for the jobs we are currently attracting and that we want to continue to attract."

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