HOPE dwindles for future class

While there’s universal agreement HOPE has been a success, concern surrounds the future of the 19-year-old scholarship program.

Georgia lawmakers overhauled HOPE last year to prevent it from running out of money. The scholarship gradually will cover a smaller percentage of tuition, forcing students and families to shoulder more of the expense of attending college.

With cost a major obstacle to students earning a degree, the HOPE changes could impact Georgia’s economic success. About 60 percent of new jobs created over the next decade will require education beyond high school and the state has a goal of adding 250,000 more college graduates by 2020.

Already, the changes to HOPE have had an impact:

● Enrollment in the Technical College System of Georgia dropped by more than 12,000 students to about 103,750 last fall. Officials placed some blame on the reduced HOPE since nearly 75 percent of the system’s students receive the scholarship. More than 4,000 technical students lost the HOPE grant because they were unable to meet the new 3.0 GPA requirement.

● The University System of Georgia experienced its smallest fall semester enrollment increase since 2005. While total enrollment set a record, fewer students enrolled at nearly a dozen colleges, especially those with a higher percentage of low-income students. With about one-third of the system’s students receiving HOPE, leaders said the reduced scholarship contributed to the lower enrollment rate.

● Individual campuses also saw changes. For example, Georgia State University students needed more financial help because of the combined cuts to HOPE and federal aid programs. Freshmen receiving financial aid averaged about $2,713 in “unmet need” in fall 2010; that figure increased by almost 60 percent to $4,335 last fall. The amount represents how much students need after considering scholarships, loans, jobs and family contributions.

Democrats suggested these declines were just the beginning and raised concerns about keeping college affordable for low-income students. They proposed new legislation after projections showed the HOPE award would drop annually starting in mid-2013.

HOPE, which used to be a full-tuition award, covered 87 percent of tuition this year.

Gov. Nathan Deal and Republicans in the Legislature blocked attempts to amend the program this year, saying the earlier changes need more time to take effect.

HOPE remains an “unparalleled” scholarship that keeps college affordable for Georgia families, Deal said.

Last year the state also created the Zell Miller award, a full-tuition scholarship for the state’s most accomplished students, to encourage them to attend college in Georgia.

Diane Loupe’s daughter attends the University of Georgia on the Zell Miller award. While Loupe said she can’t assume the full-tuition award will still exist in a couple of years, she reasoned the cost would be tens of thousands more if her daughter went to a college in another state.

“It used to be a great deal and at the end of the day it is still a good deal for us,” Loupe said. “It still made sense for her to stay in Georgia.”

The question is whether HOPE will remain a good deal for Georgia families.

HOPE’s drop hasn’t been enough to steer families elsewhere — yet, said Dan Walls, a college counselor at Pace Academy in Atlanta and former dean of admissions at Emory University. Colleges across the country aggressively pursue high-ability students with a range of scholarships, grants and other awards.

“The worrisome part with HOPE is the future,” Walls said. “How much will the award cover in three, four or five years from now? If it’s a significant change it might influence students’ and families’ decisions.”

HOPE has grown dramatically since its early days. During the first year of HOPE, 42,796 students received scholarships at a cost of $21.4 million. Last year, 256,462 students received the grants at a cost of $748.1 million.

The Georgia Lottery, which funds the program, is one of the most financially successful in the country but it has failed to keep up with skyrocketing costs as college enrollment and tuition climb.

Before HOPE, fewer than one-quarter of students who scored 1400 or higher on the math and verbal SAT stayed in Georgia for college. After HOPE, about three-quarters stayed, according to university system data.

As a result, it became increasingly difficult to get into UGA and Georgia Tech. Students who couldn’t get into those two schools flocked to other campuses, causing rapid growth in enrollment and quality at Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern and Valdosta State universities.

But a study by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project found that only 4 percent of the money spent on the scholarship went to students who might not have gone to college otherwise.

That helps explain what some UGA and Georgia Tech students call “HOPE-mobiles” — the BMWs, Audis and other luxury cars around campus that middle- and upper-income parents bought their children who receive HOPE.

That’s not the case for UGA sophomore Rose Dasher, who works part-time and receives the full-tuition Zell Miller award and a Pell Grant, a federal program for low-income students. Even with the scholarship she spends thousands on books, fees and other living expenses.

“I’ve worked really hard for what I’ve gotten, but I also feel fortunate,” said Dasher, who doesn’t know if she’d be at UGA without the scholarship. “HOPE is slowly deteriorating. Eventually it’s only going to benefit people born with a silver spoon.”

Beyond the issue of who should get the award, another concern is that some colleges see nearly half their HOPE scholars lose it after freshman year because they fail to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Overall, only 30 percent keep the HOPE award for four years.

Georgia State officials found about half their HOPE scholars lose the award, and those students have a graduation rate of barely 20 percent. In response, the school started Keep HOPE Alive, a program to help students regain the award and put them on a path to graduation.

Students in the program get $500 scholarships but are required to attend workshops to improve their skills so they can earn back HOPE. While less than 10 percent of Georgia State students overall ever regain HOPE, more than half of those in the Keep HOPE Alive program do.

Lauren O’Donnell lost HOPE after her freshman year, and after she went through Keep HOPE Alive, her grades have improved enough that she expects to have the scholarship back for fall semester.

She attended workshops on everything from study habits to talking with professors. The 19-year-old was assigned an adviser to talk about problems and devise strategies on ways to improve her grades.

She lost the scholarship in part because she took on too much at once. She has learned her limits and to stop procrastinating.

O’Donnell said she has a “monetary incentive” to regain HOPE. Tuition at Georgia State is $3,641 a semester and the scholarship currently provides $3,181.50. Tuition is expected to increase next fall, although the HOPE award won’t.

“I’ll tell my friends that I can’t hang out, even though I want to, because I know I have to study,” O’Donnell said. “HOPE is just too important.”