The HOPE scholarship: Keep state’s future in mind amid cuts

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: Georgia can’t thrive unless its young do, too. So vital changes in HOPE and pre-k must be done in such a way that students’ prospects are preserved.

“I believe strongly that one can have anything if they are willing to work and pay the price for it. That includes a college education.”

— Gov. Zell Miller

It’s a painful necessity that the General Assembly is considering legislation that whittles down HOPE, a program that put Georgia on the frontier of education innovation.

Lawmakers should ensure that their final result doesn’t derail opportunity for students. An educated Georgia is too important to our future.

We all knew HOPE was going to be scaled down. Lottery proceeds haven’t kept pace with growth in both students and tuition.

And in these rugged days, perhaps a dialed-back HOPE is the best we can achieve, moving Georgia from outstanding toward merely adequate in this regard. Less HOPE does beat no HOPE.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed changes that have gained bipartisan support do a reasonably fair job of spreading the cuts across HOPE’s various initiatives. That’s the view of pragmatic politicians and accountants.

Even so, we can’t forget that just making do was not the status quo-upending intent of the HOPE scholarship championed by former Gov. Zell Miller. Supporters wanted to provide a new way forward for Georgia students who were willing to work hard, envision an education-fueled brighter future and had the audacity to act on their dreams.

HOPE, in a brilliantly simple way, made such self-improvement possible. Earn a 3.0 grade-point average and Georgia would pay your tuition at state schools.

The smaller HOPE now in the works will continue to provide a way forward, but the path will be steeper. We must guard against it becoming too rugged a trail.

College will simply cost more after the HOPE grant is “decoupled” from tuition charges. Many students, certainly those of modest or meager means, will become familiar with the phrase “making ends meet.”

No easy task that, and certainly not when attendance costs have consistently risen. That’s especially true for low-income students who have hammered through the odds to view higher education as attainable. It’s vital that Georgia continue to invest in their best chance of graduating from poverty to middle-class taxpayer status or better.

The low-interest loans mentioned in the HOPE legislation will help fill the gap for these students and others, but only if they’re adequately funded by the state. Not counting federal Pell grants for the needy against HOPE awards will help, too. Both concepts should remain in the final bill that’s sent off for Deal’s signature.

As HOPE is reduced, financial worries will grow for middle-class students, too. Low-cost loans will also be useful to these scholars who are now learning a hard lesson about life’s unpredictability, especially during a recession.

A recovering economy will hopefully provide more job options for collegians who find themselves in need of paying work. Balancing school, work and lack of sleep beats dropping out.

One risk of moving to a system where tuition award levels will be set each year is that Georgia’s best students might seek more-predictable financial aid packages in other states. We need their intellectual power here. Educated minds can draw better-paying jobs that enrich communities. We need more of that.

The General Assembly can help in this regard by keeping budget cuts to the state’s colleges and universities as small as possible in coming fiscal years. Allowing the gap between total college costs and HOPE awards to widen too greatly would create an unfair double whammy for students.

Collegians won’t be the only group feeling the HOPE cuts. The state’s pre-k program will see the length of its class day reduced by one-third under the proposal.

The legislation wisely contains money to pay for extended-day programs for at-risk students and even increases the number of slots by 5,000, which may cut the waiting list by half.

Even so, lawmakers must remain mindful of the powerful advantages of early childhood education. Starting young children on the right path reduces the expense of remedial work later on.

The state should examine ways to retain a robust, full-day of pre-k. Its cost is money wisely invested. A suggestion by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute to increase by two percentage points the lottery revenue allocated to HOPE could cover much of the price of keeping full-day sessions. That’s worth further study.

As the Gold Dome files down HOPE, legislators should keep our future as much in mind as the present.

HOPE was damaged by its own success, not inherent flaws in concept or execution.

Georgia’s bold bet has paid off. We can’t surrender that competitive advantage now. With prudent changes, that won’t happen.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

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