Learning Curve: No HOPE for needy

Georgia’s HOPE scholarship has become the political equivalent of a poundcake recipe handed down from your dear, departed Grannie: You dare not change a single ingredient, and if you get caught trying to sneak a bite off somebody else’s plate, you better expect a hand slap.

Ask state Sen. Jack Hill. His hand is probably smarting right now after he introduced a bill that would tap HOPE to assist low-income college students.

Hill, a Reidsville Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, envisions small grants of $600 or $700 that he says could make the difference between a student staying in college or dropping out. The grants would be awarded only when there are sufficient revenues from the lottery to also fund standard HOPE scholarships and pre-k.

As a student, Hill admits, he wasn’t a top scholar and would have lost HOPE, which requires a B average in high school to qualify. To keep the scholarship in college, students have to maintain that B average.

Hill knows opponents will argue that students should just work hard to earn and keep merit-based HOPE. “It is no sin not to have a B average,” he responds. “It doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard.”

Under Hill’s legislation, the HOPE need grants would depend solely on family income, which isn’t a factor in the 17-year-old HOPE program. (Speaking of recipes, the original HOPE once had a family-income cap, but it was lifted.)

HOPE need recipients would be identified through Pell Grants, the federal aid program for the poorest students, most of whom come from families earning less than $30,000 a year in Georgia, says Hill.

Last week, the Senate Higher Education committee approved Hill’s Senate Bill 496, the HOPE College Opportunity Grant.

Georgia University System Chancellor Erroll B. Davis Jr. endorses the legislation, saying, “It’s the right thing to do for Georgia students.”

“High-school freshmen generally make decisions based on tomorrow — or next weekend if they are more farsighted,” says Davis. “So if you don’t wake up to what it takes to earn HOPE until your junior year, it’s too late.

“There are many late-bloomer students who can be very successful in college, but didn’t make the right decisions early enough to qualify for HOPE. And with no large-scale, need-based aid programs, they are out of luck financially in this state,” says Davis.

Not everyone agrees. UGA President Michael Adams says he opposes need-based HOPE because it would undercut public support of the program. On my Get Schooled blog on ajc.com, only five of 150 posters supported the idea.

“We’re already throwing away money on pseudo-students using their worthless high school inflated grades to waste space in college classrooms,” one poster argued. “Now some half-wit proposes that we throw away even more.”

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a national organization dedicated to closing the achievement gap, doesn’t understand the hostility to helping low-income students.

More than 90 percent of the spending on the HOPE scholarship goes to students who would have attended college even without the aid, according to the research on the program.

In a 2006 federal study, 54 percent of Georgia students with documented financial need did not receive enough aid to meet that need, falling short by an average of $5,400.

It’s not that those students aren’t trying; four out of five undergraduates worked while attending school, including 37 percent who put in 35 or more hours per week, according to the study.

While other states give their neediest students top priority in distributing college financial aid, Georgia clings to a need-blind approach, says Haycock.

“In Georgia, if you are working hard and get into college, the state will support you even if you don’t need the aid,” she says. “How that becomes a bigger priority than providing help to the kids who absolutely can’t stay in college without support is bizarre, just bizarre.”

Nor does Haycock understand the attitude that low-income students who fail to meet the academic bar for HOPE are undeserving of any other financial help and that a $600 grant constitutes a form of welfare.

“I came from a small-town high school with weak standards and had a 2.65 average my first year at college,” she says.

“By Georgia standards, I would have lost my scholarship and gone home, but I stayed in school and went on to win the top award that my university gave.”

It’s absurd, Haycock says, to assume students who slip below a 3.0 are lazy or stupid, noting that it’s difficult to keep a high average in engineering and science.

“The universities don’t throw you out if you get less than that,” she says. “You are still in good academic standing.”

“I just don’t understand,” she says, “why people in Georgia believe that you are unworthy of any state support if you have less than a 3.0.”