Sunday, January 09, 2011

Georgia Facing a Hard Choice on Free Tuition

This is an important conversation happening in Georgia regarding merit-based aid. Attempts to make eligibility for Texas' state financial aid, TEXAS Grant, an increasingly merit-based program is going to be on the table again this session.

The difficult factor that few are considering in Texas is that we've increased the challenges that students will have in simply meeting the current eligibility requirements. To support increasing the merit criteria will have disproportionate effects for low-income students that attend poorly resourced high schools.

I urge everyone, and college students especially, to please keep a close watch on this issue this session!


Published: January 6, 2011

ATHENS, Ga. — Students here at the University of Georgia have a name for some of the fancy cars parked in the lots around campus. They call them Hopemobiles. But there may soon be fewer of them.

The cars are gifts from parents who find themselves with extra cash because their children decided to take advantage of a cherished state perk — the Hope scholarship. The largest merit-based college scholarship program in the United States it offers any Georgia high school student with a B-average four years of free college tuition.

But the Hope scholarship program is about to be cut by a new governor and Legislature facing staggering financial troubles.

The lingering effects of the recession and the end of federal stimulus funds have sunk many states into a fiscal quagmire. The seriousness of the problem, and a growing concern over how much worse it might become, have many states struggling to find ways to trim services or raise revenues.

In Georgia, that means taking a slice out of the Hope scholarship.

When it was begun in 1993, the program was covered easily by Georgia’s state lottery. Politicians enjoyed how happy it made middle-class constituents. Educators praised the way it improved SAT scores and lifted Georgia from the backwaters of higher education.

It was considered so innovative that 15 states copied it. And while the lottery-based scholarship programs in states like Tennessee are dipping into reserves to cover the costs, none have fiscal woes as big as Georgia’s.

Part of it is the program’s popularity. A majority of freshmen in Georgia have grades good enough to qualify for Hope, which covers tuition, some books and fees — but not housing costs — at any Georgia university or technical school.

And even though as many as two-thirds of Hope students let their college grades slip so much that they no longer qualify — “I’ve lost Hope,” they joke when it happens — Georgia still gives away more financial aid per student than any other state. Since the program started, 1.3 million Georgia students have received a total of $5.6 billion in educational support. The program offers as much as $6,000 a year for some students.

But the program has become so popular it cannot sustain itself. Lottery sales, which by law can pay for only the Hope scholarship and a free prekindergarten program, will be short $243 million this fiscal year and as much as $317 million the next, according to state budget estimates.

Last year, lawmakers had to pull millions of dollars from the state’s reserve fund just to cover the cost. But this year, there is nowhere to turn.

Like the other states that are facing the worst fiscal crisis in recent memory, Georgia heads into its legislative session next week staring at a budget deficit of as much as $2 billion. And that is after billions of dollars in cuts over the past two years that have reduced the state’s spending power to $17.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

But trim the program that for years has paid to educate the children of the most reliable voters in the state?

“Undoubtedly, this is, in every sense of the word, a very strongly ingrained entitlement for a certain segment of voters, and politicians are indeed reluctant to touch it,” said Christopher Cornwell, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, who has studied the effect of the Hope scholarship on the state, including an analysis of the positive impact the scholarship has had on car sales.

Politicians are hoping for mercy as they begin this month to make decisions that will surely have the parents of college-bound students scrambling to find new ways to pay for tuition.

“We trust and we hope the people in the state of Georgia understand the position we’re in,” said State Representative Len Walker, a Republican who leads the House Higher Education Committee.

They do and they don’t.

Cathy Ottley, a part-time office manager, and her husband, a management consultant, are raising three children in Marietta, north of Atlanta. One is a sophomore at the University of Georgia, courtesy of the Hope scholarship. A daughter who is a high school senior had her heart set on the University of North Carolina but has come to see an in-state college as the practical way to go. And then there is the youngest, a high school freshman with a promising future in athletics. Without the scholarship, Ms. Ottley said, college for her children would be a stretch at best.

“This just gives you options,” she said. “I don’t have peace about kids just starting out at 22 with $200,000 in debt for their education.”

Mr. Walker said no one was talking about cutting the program completely.

“It appears at this point that it will not be a 100 percent scholarship. It might be 90 percent. It might 80 percent,” he said. But the cost of books and fees will most certainly be eliminated.

Other options include raising the required grade-point average, which would cut the number of students who qualify, or giving more to exceptional students and less to merely above-average performers.

“That would make it so much harder,” said Myisha Price, a junior at Clayton State University in Atlanta, who relies on the scholarship and also works. “I don’t go to clubs. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke and I don’t party and it’s already hard.”

Another idea is to work economic need into the equation, though that idea does not have much support, both lawmakers and educators said.

The most likely plan, and one that Governor-elect Nathan Deal, a Republican, has indicated he supports, would be to create a flat rate for each student, regardless of the tuition bill.

At a cafeteria table here this week, a group of Hope recipients defended the program and debated a range of ideas to keep Hope alive, including raising taxes.

Allie McCullen, who is majoring in English and women’s studies, is in her fourth year at Georgia. She is the only child of a single mother who in 2006 lost her job in the mortgage industry. Ms. McCullen pieces together her living expenses and extra book costs through a small grant and two jobs.

“If I didn’t have it, I might not be able to attend at all,” she said. “Or I would just be in such severe debt that I might not ever be able to get out of it.”

If the scholarship ends or gets cut drastically, it could send the most promising students out of state and even end the era of new cars for incoming freshman.

Lauren Rice drives a Hopemobile (though, she concedes, it is only a Honda Civic). Her parents told her she could go to college anywhere. She was considering Auburn in Alabama. But her parents offered her what she called “the car incentive.” That, plus the daunting out-of-state tuition helped her select the University of Georgia.

But without Hope, Ms. Rice’s decision might have been different.

“If you’re going to have a bill in-state anyway,” she said, “then what does it matter?”

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