House approves HOPE bill, but challenges in Senate loom

The House approved a bill Tuesday to provide the HOPE scholarship with a financial lifeboat, but challenges remain as some argue the overhaul places too heavy a burden on students and families.

Only the state's brightest students will see the scholarship cover all tuition at public colleges this coming fall. While HOPE will cover some tuition for many others, students say they will have to take out loans or work extra jobs to make up the difference.

While this may pose a financial hardship, the changes are needed because the program is outspending revenue from the Georgia Lottery, said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, one of the bill’s sponsors. This year, 236,124 students are receiving HOPE at a cost of $639.6 million.

“The reason we’re here is because the program is going broke,” Collins said. “We cannot continue the path we are on. Changes must be made.”

House Bill 326, which was filed just last week, sailed through the House with bipartisan support. The vote was 152-22.

The bill is expected to face greater challenges in the Senate. The governor's staff already began briefing senators and some Senate Democrats are expected to release Wednesday their own proposal on changes to HOPE.

Meanwhile students have planned a rally Wednesday morning to protest the changes.

HOPE had covered all tuition for students who graduated from high school with a 3.0 GPA and maintained that mark in college. But now the amount students receive will vary annually, depending on lottery revenue. For this coming fall, it will be 90 percent of current tuition levels, meaning it won’t cover the double-digit tuition increase expected at some colleges. Students also will lose money for books and mandatory fees.

Private students will see their HOPE award drop from $4,000 to $3,600. Students using the HOPE grant at technical colleges will be required to maintain a 3.0.

Only students who graduate from high school with at least a 3.7 GPA and 1200 SAT score would see all tuition at public colleges covered under a new Zell Miller Scholarship, named after the former governor who created the HOPE program.

These students will have to maintain a 3.3 in college to keep the full scholarship. Lawmakers had wanted them to maintain a 3.5, but it was lowered to be in line with colleges’ honors programs. The average GPA of the Georgia Tech Honors Program is 3.34.

While the new Zell Miller Scholarship requirements are more reasonable, other concerns remain, said Corey Boone, president of Tech's Student Government Association. Current recipients should be given a year to get their finances in order before the new rules go into effect, he said.

"We don't all come from backgrounds where we can run to our parents and ask them for money," Boone said. "Students will have to make very difficult choices. Some may take off a semester to work full-time to raise the extra money. This will have a tremendous impact come fall."

Some House Democrats questioned why current recipients couldn't be grandfathered in. But Republicans in the rules committee blocked Democrats' attempts to add an amendment on this issue and others, including an income cap.

Collins said the bill still rewards the best and brightest students. He said the governor's  team considered a grandfather clause but rejected it because it would cost about $180 million.

While pre-k is also funded by the Georgia Lottery, it was not in the HOPE bill and will be handled at a different time.

Shortly after taking office, Gov. Nathan Deal began work on the plan. He met with Republican leaders of the House and Senate and engaged them in general discussions about the future of the HOPE.

The next step was to set parameters -- what the governor and Republican lawmakers could agree needed to be in the bill. Soon, a working group was formed to start hammering out the agreement.

Meanwhile, Deal began meeting and talking with House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. Eventually, Deal showed Abrams the working draft of the HOPE plan.

Abrams had suggestions. Deal thought they were good ideas and Republican leadership in the House and Senate agreed they made sense. Those ideas, including allowing HOPE to cover remedial classes in technical colleges and funding a low-interest loan program, were incorporated into the bill.

Before the bill passed the House, Abrams gave one of the most impassioned speeches in support of it.

Abrams, a Yale-educated attorney, said she had $123,000 in loans for her education. Her parents went without running water to help pay for school activities for her and five siblings, she said.

"There must be shared sacrifice," Abrams said. "HOPE does not belong to rich or poor. It belongs to all of us."

Donna Scullin has two children attending Georgia State University and both are on the HOPE scholarship. She was expecting the cuts to be deeper and is happy to be getting at least some assistance.

"With any entitlement there’s always the possibility it will go away, so I’m not surprised by this," she said. "It’s a heart-breaker for the kids who only have this. If HOPE is your plan A and your only plan, you’re going to get hit hard."

Democrats who spoke against the bill argued it would hurt low-income students the most.

Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, noted that most lottery tickets are sold in lower-income neighborhoods.

"But under [House Bill] 326, the majority of that money is going to an elite club," he said.

Staff writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.