At 20, HOPE enters era of uncertainty

Welcome to the new era of HOPE — Georgia’s popular college scholarship that turns 20 this month and faces an uncertain middle age.

More than 1.5 million Georgians paid for college using HOPE so far. But recent changes altered the program and more revisions are likely. Over the next 20 years:

  • Students getting a scholarship won’t know very far in advance how much or how little it will cover. Payouts now fluctuate annually and cover less than full tuition, forcing larger out-of-pocket expenses on families.
  • Costs will soar for the Zell Miller Scholarship, the new award that maintains full tuition payouts at public colleges for the state’s most accomplished students, draining resources for those who receive the standard HOPE.
  • A diminished HOPE could work against state leaders’ aim to boost the proportion of college-educated Georgians, which they believe is key to a thriving economy.

“We know HOPE is going to exist, but what it will look like 15 years out is unknown,” said Tracy Ireland, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers HOPE. “I understand what parents are thinking, I have a six- and 9-year-old. All I can tell them is save, save, save.”

Former Gov. Zell Miller created the HOPE Scholarship to give students an incentive to do well in high school and go to college. Students with a 3.0 grade point average would get free tuition at the state’s public colleges.

During its first year, some 42,796 students earned HOPE to the tune of about $21.4 million. Last year, 180,206 students received HOPE at a cost of $411.6 million.

That growth has had a steep price as increasing enrollment, coupled with tuition hikes, financially strained the program. HOPE was on track to run out of money last year before Gov. Nathan Deal engineered an overhaul that cut award payouts and tightened eligibility to reduce expenses and recipients.

“It’s still one of the richest scholarship programs in the country,” Deal said.

He and other Republican lawmakers note the changes, coupled with a strong year from the Georgia Lottery, allowed payouts to increase by 3 percent this fall.

Look toward the future, however, and tuition is still rising. A HOPE student at the University of Georgia receives $3,276.95 this fall, while tuition is $4,014. That leaves a $737 tab, plus the costs of books and fees, which are no longer covered. A HOPE scholar at Kennesaw State gets $2,130.25 this semester, while tuition is $2,487, a $357 gap plus books and fees. 

Chancellor Hank Huckaby has stressed the need for all University System of Georgia presidents to increase fundraising to support more scholarships.

“We can’t depend on HOPE to meet all the needs our students have,” he said.

Enrollment in the University System dropped by 1.2 percent last year and college leaders say the reduced HOPE scholarship was one of the culprits. The largest drops were at two-year colleges, which enroll more working students who are most affected by changes to scholarships and other aid programs.

“It’s reasonable to predict” that a reduced HOPE will cause more students to consider less expensive colleges and those closer to home, said Christopher Cornwell, an economics professor at UGA. He has worked on studies concluding that HOPE’s main effect has been on where students go to college, not whether they do.

When Deal and lawmakers overhauled HOPE in 2011 they created a new full-tuition award, the Zell Miller Scholarship, for Georgia’s most accomplished students. While these students were already likely to attend college, the award addressed concerns that a reduced HOPE scholarship would send the state’s most elite students elsewhere.

During debate over the new program, some critics argued that the Zell Miller would benefit only a small number of the state’s students even though it is funded by the Georgia Lottery through tickets sold statewide.

As it turns out, students in five metro Atlanta counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton and Gwinnett — graduate nearly half the students eligible for the award, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported. These counties account for about one-third of the state’s high school seniors.

Zell Miller scholars must graduate high school as the valedictorian or salutatorian, or with at least a 3.7 grade-point average and a 1200 on the SAT’s math and reading sections. While in college they must maintain a 3.3 GPA. HOPE scholars must maintain a 3.0.

About 12 percent of students who received a HOPE scholarship last year were on the Zell Miller, according to estimates from the commission.

The vast majority of these full-tuition scholars attend UGA or Georgia Tech, which have the highest tuition and the largest annual rate increases. As a result, the Zell Miller program is projected to cost about $80 million in fiscal year 2016 and $417 million in 2040.

That will mean gradually less money for the regular HOPE scholarship.

“At some point lawmakers will have to have a conversation about what to do,” said Ireland, president of the state commission that administers HOPE and Zell Miller.

Cornwell and Will Doyle, a professor of public policy in higher education at Vanderbilt University, said the state could tighten the eligibility requirements so fewer students are eligible for the full-tuition Zell Miller award.

Whatever happens, state leaders don’t want to go back to the original intent, which was to give HOPE to high-achieving students who came from lower-income families.

“I think it should be merit-based and not need-based,” Deal said. “If you begin to make it need-based, it begins to sound like an entitlement program.”

That is not the vision for one of the state’s premier education programs, he said.

“It is a program that should promote excellence,” Deal said.

Georgia was the first state to dedicate its lottery toward a program like HOPE, and no one knew how much money it would raise. The program initially had an income cap of $66,000 — the combined income of two teachers. That was raised to $100,000 before being eliminated when it became clear the lottery would be successful.

About one-third of all HOPE recipients qualify for the Pell Grant, a federal aid program targeting low-income students, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees HOPE.

Some argue the number should be higher. They think HOPE in the future should go to students who need the most help to afford college.

“My primary concern is that we’ve transformed HOPE from a program that provides access to college into something that has a different purpose,” said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, who has pushed to re-focus the scholarship on financial need.

“This discussion is about the soul and meaning of that program and in a lot of ways, it’s about what Georgia cares about most. My worst fear is we are abandoning the idea that we want to open up the doors of our colleges to everyone.”

Some students fear more changes will come to HOPE and they won’t have the money they were promised for college.

Consider Hunter Pope, a freshman at Valdosta State University. She receives the full-tuition Zell Miller Award and earned other scholarships to pay for her books and fees. She lives living at home to save money. And she plans to put herself in a position so she’ll never be at risk of losing Zell Miller.

“I figure I’ll just study and study and study to make sure I have a perfect 4.0,” she said. “If you have that you can always count on getting all your tuition paid for, right?”

Questions surrounding HOPE involve more than education philosophy.

State leaders want higher education to play a bigger role in economic development. Deal in 2011 launched the Complete College Initiative with a goal of producing more than 250,000 more college graduates by 2020.

He and others cite figures showing 60 percent of all new jobs created over the next decade will require education beyond high school, which currently only 42 percent of the population has.

Chris Cummiskey, who leads the state economic development department, said the state’s commitment to developing a quality workforce is a big factor in drawing new companies and persuading those already in Georgia to stay and expand.

“If you look at (the University of) Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, you’re watching them keep quality kids in Georgia” with the help of HOPE, Cummiskey said. “It improves our quality of workforce. Our workforce is who is drawing companies to come” or stay, he said.

But officials aren’t talking enough about how HOPE can best help Georgia’s workforce, said Claire Suggs, senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a fiscally liberal think-tank.

If the state is to meet its college attainment goals — and sustain an educated workforce — it needs HOPE to focus on students who may not be able to afford college without financial aid, she said. High costs are the main obstacle students face as they work toward a degree, studies show.

“The focus can’t be just preserving the program as it’s always been. It must be making changes based on changing students and workforce needs. It needs to be a flexible program.”

Suggs is optimistic such changes can be made, noting Deal and other leaders made some tweaks after problems were noticed with the 2011 overhaul.

For instance, under those changes technical college students had to make a 3.0 grade-point average to be eligible for the HOPE grant — up from 2.0 previously.

Nearly 9,000 students lost the grant simply didn’t enroll because they couldn’t afford tech school with a reduced HOPE, college officials said. Technical college students tend to be older, work full-time and support families while balancing school.

This spring, lawmakers reverted back to the 2.0 GPA rule.

Deal also set aside millions in lottery money for extra HOPE support for certain technical college degrees — practical nursing, commercial truck driving, and early childhood care and education. Those areas face workforce shortages and Deal said it directs money and students to where the jobs are. HOPE-eligible students receive an additional $500 or $1,000, depending on the program.

Such targeting is unproven, however. The federal government attempted a similarly focused award with the Pell Grant, but the money just went to people who were already headed into those fields, said Doyle, who studies scholarships and aid.

“It goes back to efficiency and not just giving money to people who would have gone to college anyway,” Doyle said.

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