Students must graduate high school with a 3.0 GPA to earn the HOPE scholarship and then maintain those marks in college to keep it. About half the scholarship students lose it after freshman year. Many start college unprepared. Some don't study, distracted by the freedom of living on their own.
Lauren Espinosa was raised by a single mother and knew she needed to earn and keep the scholarship while at UGA. She worked part time, was involved in her sorority and still maintained a 3.82 GPA while working on a degree in biological science.
"The first year was hard, really hard because it was such a big transition and I had to learn how to balance studying with work and extracurriculars," she said. "Of course there were times my friends went out but I stayed in to study. It was hard sometimes watching them have fun, but I knew I wouldn't keep HOPE if all I did was cram the night before a test."
HOPE isn't working at its optimum, but the problem isn't with the scholarship, said Willis Potts, chairman of the state Board of Regents, which oversees 35 public colleges.
"In some ways, our colleges are failing these students," Potts said. "We're working to change that."
In 2010, the regents ordered all college presidents to explain why more of their students aren’t graduating and to develop plans to address the problem. Parts of those plans were already in place, and other parts are being rolled out.
Georgia Gwinnett College, Southern Polytechnic and others require professors to call students, send e-mails or at least follow up when they don't show up for class or fall behind on assignments. Clayton State has been aggressive with offering more tutoring, and many other campuses paired students with mentors and tutors. Some colleges, including Georgia Southern University, developed programs to teach students how to study in college.
"But we have students who have been spoon-fed academically all their lives, and now going to class and studying is optional," Potts said. "There is a maturity required to deal with college, and many are not mature enough to handle it."
Students who kept HOPE said they purposely put academics first. For some, the scholarship was the only way they could afford college. Others needed to keep their grades up to earn admission to graduate school.
Audrey Plummer is graduating from Georgia Tech on May 8 with a degree in architecture and a 3.77 GPA.
"It was always expected that I would keep up my end of the bargain and keep HOPE for all four years," Plummer said. "This was my responsibility, and my parents agreed to help pay for my housing. This was my job while I was in college."
Few students regain HOPE if they lose it. Of the 24,496 students who entered a University System college in fall 2004 with the scholarship, 10,439 lost it after their first year. Only 972 students regained it the following year.
Marcus Hines will graduate from UGA on May 13 and attend medical school at New York University. He kept HOPE all four years.
While some HOPE scholars aced high school without studying, Hines worked to earn high marks, he said. That left him better prepared for college, although he adopted strategies such as reading ahead, so it would be easier for him to understand professors' lectures.
"Sometimes I do think I wish I would have had a little bit more fun," said Hines, who sang with a campus a cappella group. "I did have fun, but you have to know how to balance it. This is college and we're still young, so you need to have fun, but that is not why you are here."
Recent changes to HOPE eligibility requirements should result in more students holding on to it, because the new rules will give a truer picture of students' grades, said David Lee, director of strategic research and analysis for the Student Finance Commission, which oversees the scholarship.
Students who graduated from high school before 2007 were allowed to use only their highest grades in English, math, science, social studies and foreign language to determine eligibility. Students may have failed these classes on their first try, but those grades weren't considered, Lee said. As a result, some students who technically had a 2.0 GPA received the scholarship, he said.
Now all the grades students earned in core courses count when the commission determines eligibility, Lee said. The impact of these changes will be noticed in 2013.
As part of the HOPE overhaul approved this spring, high school students will be required to take specific rigorous courses to be eligible for the scholarship. The requirement, which begins with this fall's ninth-graders, should make students better prepared for college, lawmakers said.
This fall, HOPE will pay full tuition only for the state's most accomplished students, about 10 percent of recipients. Others will receive scholarship money to cover 90 percent of current tuition rates -- not the new, increased rates for next fall.
A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said HOPE will continue to reward students, but they must take responsibility for what happens next.
"HOPE is not an entitlement, it’s a reward," Brian Robinson said. "The beauty of it is that each student is in command of his or her destiny."
Colleges realize students need help to attain that destiny.
Georgia State started an early alert system that asks every instructor teaching freshmen to provide feedback on attendance, performance and problems as early as four weeks into the semester. Struggling students are connected with tutors and advisers before taking their first test, said Tim Renick, associate provost for academic programs.
Knowing freshmen are reluctant to ask professors for help, the college assigned peer tutors to work with students in more than 20 courses with the highest failure rates. Students' GPAs in these courses have increased by as much as half a letter grade, Renick said.
Renick said 64 percent of freshmen held onto HOPE this past year, while three years ago 54 percent did.
Some students struggle freshman year because they're taking core courses they have little interest in and would rather learn about their majors, said Stephanie Burnett, who will graduate from Columbus State University on May 9 after having kept HOPE all four years.
"I'm not a big partyer or drinker, and people who choose that will lose HOPE," Burnett said. "I studied and worked hard, and I don't think I missed out on anything. The only thing I'm missing is big debt."
On average, only 30 percent of students keep HOPE throughout their college career. Here's data from colleges popular with metro Atlanta students. The figures reflect students who entered as first-time freshmen in fall 2004 and graduated by spring 2010.
College ... Percent
University of Georgia ... 60.9
Georgia Tech ... 42.7
Georgia College & State ... 38.4
Georgia State ... 31.7
Georgia Southern ... 28.7
Kennesaw State ... 27.7
Southern Polytechnic ... 18.3
University of West Georgia ... 18.3
Clayton State ... 15.6
University System average ... 29.6
Source: University System of Georgia
The number of University System of Georgia students who keep the HOPE scholarship throughout college has mostly increased, but not by much, in recent years. Students must have a 3.0 GPA when grades are checked at 30, 60 and 90 credit hours.
Year ... Percent
2004 ... 29.6
2003 ... 29.7
2002 ... 28.1
2001 ... 26.7
2000 ... 25.8
1999 ... 22.3
Note: The data reflects the fall semester students entered as first-time freshmen and allows for six years to earn a diploma. Percentages rounded.
Source: University System of Georgia