PolitiFact: Attack on Deal about HOPE grants relies on faulty data

This article was edited for length. To see a complete version and its sources, go to www.politifact.com/georgia/.

“Nathan Deal cut the HOPE scholarship program so that literally 100,000 Georgians will not be able to go to college or get technical training that they so badly needed to raise — you know, give them a chance at a good job.”

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, during an appearance May 21 on MSNBC

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, went on the attack just one day after Georgia’s primary election.

Shumlin was on MSNBC promoting state Sen. Jason Carter, his party’s nominee for governor of Georgia, and pouncing on Gov. Nathan Deal, Carter’s GOP opponent.

“Nathan Deal cut the HOPE scholarship program so that literally 100,000 Georgians will not be able to go to college or get technical training that they so badly needed to raise — you know, give them a chance at a good job,” Shumlin said.

The HOPE scholarship program, which is funded by lottery sales, is sacrosanct in Georgia. Since the mid-1990s, HOPE has given tens of thousands of students the chance to attend a college, university or technical college.

PolitiFact Georgia wanted to know whether Shumlin was correct. Did Deal slash the HOPE program to the detriment of 100,000 students?

Deal pushed through several changes to HOPE in his first year in office that he said were needed to ensure its long-term viability. He took similar steps with the state’s popular universal and voluntary pre-kindergarten program, which also is funded by lottery ticket sales.

The changes to HOPE, which had Republican and Democrat backing, were effective for fiscal 2012, which started July 1, 2011. For the first time, technical college students had to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average — instead of a 2.0 — to qualify for a HOPE grant. For all but the top students, HOPE awards were cut — to cover about 90 percent of tuition costs (now about 80 percent). Another new requirement meant students had to start college within seven years of their high school graduation in order to receive a HOPE scholarship.

The fallout was immediate. At the technical colleges, the share of students receiving HOPE dropped from 74 percent in 2011 to 54 percent in 2013. They included 11,471 students who lost HOPE because their GPAs straddled between 2.0 and 3.0.

A chart on the Georgia Student Finance Commission website documents the number of students receiving HOPE grants and scholarships fell 62,504, from 256,380 to 193,876 in 2012-2013.

That’s a lot. But it’s not 100,000.

We reached out to Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association, who told us the 100,000 figure came from an Atlanta Magazine article published in January 2014.The problem: The article included information from only part of fiscal 2014, which ends June 30, 2014.

It should be noted that, according to Tracy Ireland, president of the Student Finance Commission, the 2014 figures were omitted from the agency’s website beginning in late April due to a computer error and were reposted May 23, after Shumlin’s MSNBC appearance and after PolitiFact started making calls for this fact check.

The agency also went back May 23 and adjusted the website report to show more grant and scholarship recipients.

Prior numbers on the website showed there were 82,682 fewer HOPE scholarship/grant recipients in fiscal 2013 than there were in fiscal 2011.

Democrats called the revisions suspicious.

“They are actively revising numbers to make the governor look better in an election year when his opponent is making this a key issue,” said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Carter.

More to consider

State officials say other factors likely played a role in the drop in HOPE awards and enrollment. Technical colleges moved during this period from quarters to semesters, causing some temporary upheaval. Likely more importantly, the state was starting to rebound from what’s generally referred to as the Great Recession.

Earlier this month, Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, wrote Jason Carter after learning Carter was being quoted in the media as saying technical college enrollment is off 45,000, largely due to changes in the HOPE grant program.

Jackson said technical colleges added nearly 45,000 students between 2008 and 2010, the peak of the Great Recession. Their enrollment of 151,150 students last year was closer to the colleges’ pre-recession numbers and follows a decline in two-year college enrollment, he wrote Carter.

Also, Jackson said that, of those 11,471 students who could not meet the 3.0 GPA requirement, 2,341 remained in college and graduated. Another 2,341 came back after the GPA requirement was returned to 2.0 in 2013, he said.

The Student Finance Commission’s Ireland said program changes had to be made to protect HOPE. In fiscal 2011, agency projections showed that the costs of lottery-funded programs were outstripping new lottery revenue at an accelerating rate. If unchecked, lottery reserves would have been depleted by the end of fiscal 2013, he said.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal, said Democrats’ numbers are “flat wrong and their analysis is sheer speculation.”

“We saved HOPE,” Robinson said. “We maintain the most generous scholarship program in the nation. Vermont should be so lucky.”

He said Georgia’s technical college enrollment went down because 240,000 new jobs have been created in Deal’s tenure. “That’s a big reason technical college enrollment declined,” he said.

Our conclusion: The number of students who receive HOPE grants and scholarships to attend universities, 2-year, 4-year or technical colleges fell off after changes to the program were enacted in the fiscal year that started July 1, 2011.

Numbers on the Student Finance Commission website show 62,504 fewer HOPE scholarship and grant recipients in the first two years after the new rules were put in place. And state officials say other facts were at play, including the improving economy.

Shumlin relied on a magazine article, which included data from only part of a year.

We rate his statement Half True.