ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders have worked out a plan for the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship program that would mean recipients would no longer have the promise of a free college education and be required to graduate on time, an official familiar with the negotiations said Thursday night.
The scholarships would no longer rise as tuition does and would be decreased to about 90 percent of their current value, the offical told The Associated Press. The changes would affect current and future recipients. About a third of students enrolled in public colleges and universities in the state use the HOPE.
The plan to try to rescue the program would scale back the state's 20-year-old lottery-funded program. It also would stop letting students take classes indefinitely for free and cut stipends for books and student fees, said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the plan are not set to be announced by Deal until Tuesday.
Georgia high school graduates can get the HOPE — which pays for tuition, books and some fees — if they graduate with a B average and keep a 3.0 grade point average in college.
For the first time in nearly a decade, officials had to tap the HOPE's reserves this year, setting off a series of triggers designed to scale back the spending once the program began operating in the red. This fall, the $350-per-year book stipend for students on HOPE will be cut in half, and next year HOPE will no longer cover student fees.
Under the plan, the program also will not pay for remedial classes and will top out at 127 credit hours, or four full-time years of college, the official said.
Lottery money also funds free prekindergarten for the state's 4-year-olds, a program that will be scaled back, said Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams. He said lawmakers are working to save the lottery programs, which are expected to be $380 million in the hole next year and $420 million the following year.
"Everybody's going to take a hit," Williams told AP. "We're spreading out the pain."
The lottery-funded scholarship has been copied in a dozen other states, where lawmakers will be watching how Georgia rescues the program as they stare down similar funding problems.
Deal, who took office in January, has made clear that keeping the HOPE scholarship intact for a new generation of Georgians was a key priority, and his aides have been in a flurry of meetings in recent days with legislative leaders to hammer out a deal.
The official said HOPE grants for students attending private school in Georgia will decrease from $4,000 to about $3,600. Instead of simply rising as tuition does, HOPE awards will be adjusted annually based on projected lottery revenue, the official said.
Students who lose HOPE when their grades slip below a B average will still have the opportunity to win back the scholarship, the official said.
Georgia's popular HOPE program has paid for more than 1 million students to attend college. While lottery proceeds have continued to grow, they haven't been able to keep pace with rising tuition and exploding student enrollment.
"I think everyone on both sides of the aisle have accepted that a structural change is going to have to happen in the HOPE scholarship if we want to save it as a solid program that still gives access to all the kids in Georgia who make a B average," said Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the higher education part of the House Appropriations Committee. "Will it be as absolutely perfect as we have been blessed to have in the last 20 years? No, not in these budget times."
The lottery program pays for college scholarships, grants for technical schools and prekindergarten. The state constitution allows lottery revenue to go to technology and buildings for elementary, middle and high schools, but lawmakers cut that line item in 2003 as the HOPE program swelled.