HOPE will endure! That’s the message that the Georgia Student Finance Commission, the state agency that provides financial aid to Georgia students, recently communicated to leaders of the Georgia General Assembly. Thanks to the impact of House Bill 326, the Enduring HOPE bill that was passed during the 2010 legislative session and enacted in 2011, projections for what many consider to be the most successful merit-based scholarship program in the nation now are looking much better.
Funded through the Georgia lottery, HOPE — Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally — is used to fund not only tuition grants and scholarships for eligible students to attend colleges and universities in Georgia, but also is used to fund voluntary pre-kindergarten in our state.
Since its inception in 1993, the HOPE scholarship has awarded more than $6.6 million to more than 1.45 million Georgia students and achieved its intended purpose: to stop our best and brightest students from leaving Georgia to pursue educational opportunities elsewhere. In fact, the HOPE Scholarship worked so well that, in April of 2003, the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs ranked Georgia No. 1 for the sixth year in a row among the 50 states in academic-based student financial aid.
However, beginning in 2004 — as a result of rising tuition costs, high enrollments and a leveling of lottery revenues — tweaks to the HOPE program began to be made in order to assure its sustainability. In 2010, following an enrollment explosion that saw a 47 percent growth in Georgia’s technical colleges and an 18 percent growth in Georgia’s colleges and universities during the previous three years, an even greater dilemma faced Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican-controlled Legislature as revenues could no longer keep up with expenditures.
Working together, the governor and Legislature passed HB 326, making changes to HOPE to assure its continued success. Among the major provisions made were the establishment of the Zell Miller Scholarship for high-achieving high-school graduates, uncoupling the HOPE benefit from the rate of tuition charged by universities and increasing the grade-point average requirement for the HOPE grant awarded to students at Georgia’s technical colleges.
Also included in HB 326 were time limitations on eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship to seven years after graduating from high school, limits on regaining HOPE once it is lost and no payments for books or fees for all students or remedial college coursework for HOPE Scholarship students.
Resisting calls from the minority party to make more changes during the past legislative session, Republican leadership in the General Assembly patiently waited for the changes in HB 326 to take effect, and now it appears that patience paid off. What was originally predicted to be a $220 million deficit for fiscal year 12 before HB 326 was implemented has not come to fruition, and instead HOPE funds have stabilized. In fact, at the end of FY 12, lottery revenues were up $50 million while HOPE expenses were down $50 million, giving the program a $100 million net gain.
As a result of the changes made in HB 326, the Georgia Student Finance Commission is projecting that HOPE benefits should stay the same for the next two to three years — good news that shows HB 326 is working.
While we are committed to keeping the best and brightest in our state through programs such as HOPE, other programs to assist Georgia students in their quest for advanced learning opportunities, such as low-interest loan programs, have been funded by the state Legislature as well. In FY12 and FY13, the state provided $20 million in funding for the low-interest loan program to provide financially needy students with funding for college costs.
We in Georgia are blessed to have a fine higher-education system. Our universities and technical colleges are among the best in the nation; access to these opportunities for Georgia students is vitally important to our state’s future. Now, with HB 326, HOPE will endure!
Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, can be reached at 404-656-5109.