Now 20, what has HOPE accomplished?

One of the most lauded state-sponsored scholarships in the nation turns 20 this month. Its biggest anniversary gift? Having helped more than 1.5 million Georgians pay for college.

Former Gov. Zell Miller created the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship to give students an incentive to work hard in school and focus on college. He never dreamed it would be such a landmark program for Georgia.

Political and college leaders credit HOPE with changing attitudes toward college. It lifted the state’s reputation. It also boosted the reputations of the state’s top institutions including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Enrollment in technical colleges has tripled since the scholarship’s founding in 1993, while the percentage of Georgians with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 25.7 percent to 37.4 percent.

“I was young and a dreamer,” said Miller, now 81, of the HOPE, which stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally. “That it would come to this type of fruition means a lot.”

Yet HOPE’s success comes with some qualifiers.

HOPE hasn’t significantly increased the number of kids going to college who otherwise would not have, studies have concluded. The percentage of Georgians with degrees would have climbed anyway, due to job market demands and more access to loans or other aid.

HOPE overwhelmingly benefits some of the wealthiest counties in the state, even though some of the poorest counties are more likely to play the Georgia Lottery, which funds the scholarship.

When pushing for HOPE, Miller said the state would see a boost in economic development thanks to a better-educated workforce. Yet new research shows HOPE is not necessarily keeping the state’s best and brightest from leaving Georgia after they earn a degree.

Still, college leaders say there is no denying HOPE’s impact.

“HOPE changed the conversation and now families all across the state talk about sending their children to college,” University System of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby said.

“We created a culture of high expectations and gave people an incentive to do well in school and continue their education beyond high school,” said Huckaby, who was Miller’s budget director.

Until recently, the rules of HOPE were simple: Georgia students who earned and kept a 3.0 grade point average got free tuition at public colleges.

It was the kind of idea other states could only smack their foreheads over when HOPE launched in 1993: An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the kind of thing you look at half in amazement and half in anger, and wonder why your own bonehead state didn’t think of it.”

The scholarship inspired a federal tax credit and convinced more than a dozen states to start their own lotteries and scholarship programs.

In Georgia, its first year saw some 42,796 students earn HOPE at a cost of $21.4 million in lottery proceeds. Flash forward to the last fiscal year: 180,206 students received HOPE at a cost of $411.6 million.

That growth came at a price. 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.

The changes, made in 2011, brought a new reality to Georgia families, Atlanta parent Charles Lawrence said.

HOPE has helped him and his children pay for college, but because of the reduced payouts he’s told his children to apply for other scholarships and awards. Son Charles graduates from Fort Valley State University in December and daughter Akasha is a freshman at the University of West Georgia. Another daughter, Kahlia, is in eighth-grade at Young Middle School in Atlanta.

“HOPE still covers a good part of tuition and we’re thankful for that,” he said. “It’s still a good deal, but we don’t know how much longer that will last.”

All Georgia students can earn HOPE, but the program overwhelmingly benefits those most likely to attend and afford college anyway, data shows.

Cherokee, Cobb and Gwinnett counties have some of the highest median household incomes in Georgia, according to the 2010 census. Students and families saw at least 25 percent of total lottery sales in each of those counties returned through HOPE scholarships.

Meanwhile, rural Georgia’s Clay, Macon and Stewart counties have some of the state’s lowest household incomes. They each saw 5 percent or less of total sales returned via HOPE awards, according to Georgia Lottery data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The gap is wider for the Zell Miller Scholarship, a full-tuition award created by Deal in 2011 for the state’s most accomplished students. It goes to valedictorians, salutatorians and graduates with at least a 3.7 grade-point average and 1200 on the SAT’s math and reading sections. They must maintain a 3.3 GPA in college.

Five metro Atlanta counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette, Fulton and Gwinnett — graduate nearly half the students eligible for the Zell Miller award but account for about one-third of high school seniors statewide, data reviewed by the AJC has shown.

That gap can be found in merit-based scholarship programs across the country, said William Doyle, a professor of public policy in higher education at Vanderbilt University.

“It is an inefficient way to spend resources,” Doyle said, because “a lot of money goes to middle and upper-middle class students who were going to go to college anyway.”

Further, a state audit showed about one-third of HOPE scholars came from families who make more than $60,000 a year, while only about a quarter of Georgia taxpayers earned that much, according to 2009 federal tax returns.

Chris Cornwell, a UGA economics professor, co-authored a 2007 study that found car registrations increased in affluent counties as the number of HOPE recipients rose, giving fodder to those who call these new cars — bought by parents using money saved on tuition — “HOPE-mobiles.”

Cornwell also has looked at the scholarship’s effect on college enrollment. While HOPE helped keep some Georgians in-state, it mainly led them to choose more expensive four-year colleges over the less expensive two-year colleges, he found.

Those findings are similar to a study by Harvard’s University’s Civil Rights Project, which found that only 4 percent of the money spent on HOPE went to students who might not have gone to college otherwise.

But data also suggests HOPE keeps more high achievers in state. Pre-HOPE, less 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 system data.

At the University of Georgia, the average freshman SAT score rose from 1084 in 1994 to 1238 in 2012.

“There is an ethic today where many of the best minds in the state choose to stay in the state, rather than choosing to go out of the state which I would argue was the ethic of 20 years ago,” said President Emeritus Michael Adams, who stepped down June 30 after leading UGA for 16 years.

Students who can’t get into UGA or Tech flock to other in-state campuses, fueling enormous growth at institutions from Kennesaw State to Georgia Southern and Valdosta State universities.

As for keeping more scholars in Georgia after they graduate, HOPE so far has had little impact, according to a study published in May. It suggested that the strongest students were most likely to leave, said David Sjoquist, an economics professor at Georgia State University.

“There is no incentive in HOPE to stay in-state after graduation,” he said.

While the financial benefits of HOPE may have swayed students to remain in-state for college, those who had thought about going elsewhere would simply wait until after graduation, Sjoquist said.

“This is a problem in higher education policy in general, you may be paying for economic development in other states,” said Doyle, the Vanderbilt professor.

On the other hand, business and political leaders in Georgia say HOPE helps draw companies looking to expand or relocate, such as Ohio-based tech giant NCR, which moved its headquarters here in 2009.

HOPE can give a company moving to Georgia a selling point for employees. And the HOPE grant, used by technical college students, allows them to train employees in areas where there are workforce shortages, such as welding, nursing and commercial truck driving.

“When we’re trying to attract a company, our Quickstart (a workforce training program) and technical colleges are some of the best incentives we can market,” said Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

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