Deal proposes HOPE changes for technical colleges

Gov. Nathan Deal backed a plan Thursday that gives technical college students a better chance at earning the lottery-funded HOPE Grant, responding to criticism that too many were dropping out or avoiding enrolling because of higher standards.

Students will be eligible for the award if they maintain a 2.0 grade-point average under the bipartisan plan Deal is pushing. That’s down from the current 3.0 rule and returns to the same standard that existed before lawmakers tightened eligibility requirements and reduced award payouts in 2011 to prevent the scholarship program from going broke.

“I believe this additional benefit will help Georgia families trying to get ahead and will boost the state’s ability to attract and fill high-skilled jobs,” Deal said.

Nearly 9,000 students lost the grant last year because they couldn’t meet the higher standard. Thousands of other students simply didn’t enroll because they couldn’t afford to pay what HOPE no longer covered, said Ron Jackson, the commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia. Technical colleges will reach out to students who left to try to get them to return, he said.

House and Senate Democrats filed measures — House Bill 54 and Senate Bill 59 — to make similar grade changes last year, but Deal and other Republicans didn’t back them. On Thursday, several House Democrats stood alongside Deal and praised the governor for supporting the shift.

“It’s a way to make sure technical college students don’t lose hope — literally,” House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were conspicuously absent from the event. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, speaking outside the governor’s office, said Deal should back a broader legislative package that Senate Democrats revealed Wednesday that undoes many other changes instilled in 2011.

“Senate Democrats are very supportive of this effort, but there are thousands of other students that this bill doesn’t help,” Henson said. “I don’t think it goes far enough. We certainly need to go farther in the future.”

Deal’s plan would cost between $5 million and $8 million a year. He said the state can afford it because lottery deposits were up $32 million in the first six months of this fiscal year, a 7.6 percent increase over the same period last year.

The governor also stressed the important role technical college graduates play in the state’s economy. Deal repeated statistics that show about 60 percent of all jobs by 2020 will require a certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma. Technical colleges need to graduate more students for the state to reach this level.

Jackson and lawmakers explained technical college students should be held to a different standard than a student applying for the HOPE Scholarship, which pays for most of the in-state tuition fee for University System of Georgia students who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

Many technical college students work and take care of families while balancing school. Nearly 60 percent of these students receive the Pell Grant, federal aid for low-income students. Almost half are over age 26, and many are much older. They’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s harder for them to maintain higher grades, Jackson said.

Technical colleges have advanced in recent years and offer demanding programs in welding, technology and health care. Jackson stressed that a 2.0 is considered a C and is a passing mark.

“At the end of the day we serve nontraditional students who want careers in the areas that meet our state’s workforce needs,” Jackson said.

Historically, nearly 75 percent of technical college students receive HOPE. The system’s enrollment dropped by about 24,500 students to 170,860 last year.

“The vast majority didn’t come back for financial reasons,” Jackson said. “This change will help our students and the state.”

In a separate matter, Deal will add a measure that changes the way Georgia funds the University and Technical College systems. The plan, developed by a commission that Deal appointed, would tie taxpayer money to how well students progress through and graduate from college. The current system is driven by enrollment with little consideration as to whether students ever graduate.

Under the plan, schools could earn or lose money based on whether they improve under the system starting in the 2016 fiscal year.

“Increasing the numbers of (HOPE) Grant recipients does no one any good if the student doesn’t finish with a degree,” Deal said. “Put simply, we need more Georgians with college or technical college degrees in order to attract the jobs of tomorrow into our state.”

The announcement builds on a string of other recent changes to lottery-funded programs. Last month, Deal proposed spending $6.5 million to provide extra funding for students pursuing technical college degrees in practical nursing, commercial truck driving, and early childhood care and education.

And his budget includes funding for a 3 percent increase in award payouts for HOPE Scholarship and Grant recipients, along with money for 10 extra school days for pre-kindergarten, restoring the program to a complete 180-day school year.

But the governor said other major changes to the HOPE program won’t have his support until the financial picture clears up.

Said Deal: “I’m not willing to go back to a position that brings us back to the brink of bankruptcy.”

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