HOPE’s founding ideal lost in debate

The fact that the governor and the Legislature are determining the fate of the Hope scholarship is widely reported. What is being ignored is the threat that many of the “reforms” make to the original purpose of HOPE and the dream of former Gov. Zell Miller to move Georgia out of the 19th century.

Gov. Miller recognized that the Georgia of low-wage textile and agricultural work had ended, but the state’s view of education, particularly the view of those who controlled the Legislature and the county courthouses, remained stuck in a past when the wealthy could send their children either to Athens, or north — even if only so far as Duke University.

Were Georgia to compete in the post-textile, post-agricultural world, then more of its residents had to obtain the education necessary for success, and that education, as opposed to simple low-wage job training, was financially impossible for too many Georgians.

Thus HOPE had the purpose of transforming Georgia from a low-wage, low-education state stuck in the distant past to a prosperous, high-wage, high-education competitor on both the national and increasingly global stage. In short, Gov. Miller appreciated that Georgia had to change. And the key to progress was transforming the demographics of who attended college in our state.

Those purposes, and that history, have become lost in the current discussion. With the removal of the income cap in 1995, HOPE changed from a means to transform Georgia into overwhelmingly a welfare system for the wealthy.

Data previously prepared by the Board of Regents staff clearly proved the correlation between high school grade-point average, HOPE scholarship retention and family income.

In short, minus the income cap limitation, HOPE was not altering who attended college in Georgia, not transforming Georgia — in the main, those who retained HOPE had the financial resources to attend college and would have done so without HOPE. What changed was the type of car in which “Suzie” cruised around Athens or Atlanta. North Georgia BMW dealerships have been forever grateful.

“Reforms” to prevent students who lose HOPE from being able, through hard work and increased academic success, to regain HOPE; to set a time limit, in addition to a number of college credits, for coverage, thus preventing low-income students who are forced to work their way through college from being able to complete their studies; and to remove remedial courses from HOPE eligibility for those students not fortunate enough to have attended the proper high school (also correlated with family income) that would have fully prepared them for college-level work — all of these so-called reforms work to perpetuate the present failing of the HOPE welfare system.

Georgians have a choice. Reclaim the dream of Gov. Miller to move Georgia out of its impoverished and economically segregated past, or continue to reshape HOPE into a welfare system for the upper and middle classes, a system that does nothing to solve the problem of low college attendance and limited success for all in Georgia.

Gov. Miller provided the necessary leadership to prevent short-sighted greed from imperiling the future of our state. Where is that leadership today?

Hugh D. Hudson Jr. is chair of the Department of History at Georgia State University and executive secretary of the Georgia Conference of the American Association of University Professors.