Maureen Downey: Keeping HOPE in college

Any changes made to the cherished HOPE scholarship ought to mimic the simplicity and clarity that has made the program so successful: Graduate high school with a B average and attend a public college or university for free.

Forget any complicated plans to fund HOPE at 70 percent or to convert the scholarship to an after-the-fact loan if a student fails to do well in college. The costs of building a bureaucracy to prod students to fill out the loan forms, overseeing the conversion of the scholarship to a loan and enforcing repayment would be astronomical.

Never mind suggestions that HOPE pay for the first two years of college only or that students attain a better than a 3.0 average in college to retain the scholarship.

Nor does it seem fair to dun Pell Grant recipients, the state’s lowest-income students, for any federal aid that they receive. Beyond tuition, HOPE pays only a nominal amount toward books and fees — and that is likely to disappear — so poor students need all the help they can get to cover unmet costs.

Adding an SAT component — a minimum score that high schools students would have to achieve in addition to a 3.0 grade point average to qualify for HOPE — also seems rife with problems.

If an SAT score of 1,000 or more on the 1,600 scale became a HOPE mandate, inner-city and rural children would be stranded. Georgia’s basement ranking in the SAT stems largely from the dismal performance of rural, inner-city and small-town students, who score 40 to 60 points lower than their big-city counterparts.

It’s not that these poor and rural students lack the same potential of kids in Milton or Duluth. They lack the same opportunities.

Besides, what makes HOPE work is that it’s easily understood. You get a B average, you get HOPE. It doesn’t entail triplicate forms, three years of tax returns and a CPA to decipher.

To save money, we ought to keep HOPE simple by eliminating the second chances. Now, students whose grades fall below a 3.0 in college can win HOPE back once their grades recover.

We ought to get rid of these second chances and remain faithful to the simplicity of the merit scholarship: To keep HOPE in college, keep your B average. No exceptions. No excuses.

That is the fairest way to cope with HOPE’s impending financial free fall. It would also act as an incentive to HOPE scholars to strive to maintain their good standings.

Only 46.2 percent of students who had HOPE when they began University System colleges still retain it at the 30 credit-hour checkpoint; one year for most students. At 90 credit hours, or about three years, only 37.4 percent are still eligible.

A victim of its own success, soaring tuitions and improved college attendance, HOPE is running out of money. The Georgia Lottery cannot keep up with both HOPE and pre-k, and lawmakers are meeting now to figure out what to do.

A legislative hearing last week began with a warning by state Rep. Len Walker, R-Loganville: “This is not a train wreck about to happen. The train wreck has happened.”

At the hearing, Timothy A. Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, testified that lottery funds show a shortfall of about $244 million for this fiscal year and $317 million for fiscal 2012.

While HOPE began in 1993 as a carrot to push more low- and moderate-income, high-achieving students on the path to college, it has changed over time. In the early years, HOPE went only to Georgia students from households earning $66,000 or less. Now, there are no income caps, so even the state’s wealthiest families qualify.

Critics complain now that the scholarship is putting middle-class and affluent kids on the road to college, and too many are driving there in cars bought with the savings from HOPE.

“If we are spending loads and loads on families whose students were always going to go to college because their families had the income and then we are getting significant failure rates, what are we really doing?” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, at the hearing. “We all hear the anecdotes about the families buying condos in Athens or buying their students cars because they are getting HOPE.”

Restoring an income cap makes economic sense but could never gain political traction. Next to doubling the sales tax or raising the car tax, nothing would infuriate middle-class Georgians more than limiting HOPE to low-income households. There would be less opposition to a new rule requiring a 3.0 throughout college.

Demanding more merit from the scholars rather than more money from their parent seems a better tack.

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