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There's still HOPE for Georgia students
Legislative update
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This week, students from across the state of Georgia will begin classes at public and private colleges and universities located within our state.
For many of these students, furthering their education would not be possible without the help of HOPE.
The HOPE program, Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, is a merit-based award that is currently used by more than 200,000 Georgians a year to pay for tuition costs, books and fees if they attend college in the state.
In order to qualify for HOPE, a student must graduate from high school with at least a B average and maintain a 3.0 grade point average while in college.
Started in 1993 in conjunction with the launch of the Georgia Lottery, the HOPE program was the brainchild of then Gov. Zell Miller, who convinced Georgia’s citizens that lottery profits could be used to help families who were struggling with the high cost of tuition.
The Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees HOPE, receives proceeds directly from the Georgia Lottery to fund the program and voluntary prekindergarten programs throughout the state. Lottery proceeds cannot be used for any other purpose.
The original goals of the HOPE program – to improve high school performance, increase college participation and increase college completion – have for the most part been successful.
Supporters of the program point to a lower high school drop-out rate in the state and higher quality post secondary schools as direct results of HOPE.
But not all is well. Earlier this month, a joint meeting of the Senate and House Higher Education committees was called to discuss the financial challenges facing the HOPE program.
During the meeting, representatives of the Georgia Student Finance Commission testified that, although Georgia had one of the most successful lotteries in the nation, proceeds were not keeping pace with expenditures of the popular HOPE program.
In fact, it was projected that HOPE expenditures will exceed lottery funds by $243 million during the current fiscal year and by $317 million next year.
Much of this can be attributed to the downturn in the economy over the past few years, which has led to lottery profits essentially flattening out while the HOPE program has continued to grow.
And although the HOPE program’s total reserves were nearly $1 billion at the end of fiscal 2009, excess expenses requiring the commission to dip into reserves the past few years combined with the projected future shortfalls, will eventually deplete the reserves.
While legislators are disturbed by this news, it is not totally unexpected, and some preparation has already been implemented.
In 2004, eligibility requirements were tightened, and starting next fall, book awards will be cut back from $300 to $150 and eliminated completely the following year. In the fall of 2013, students will no longer get money for mandatory fees.
However, everyone agrees that these changes alone will not solve the long-term problems facing this enormously popular program.
One of the long-term changes being proposed is to change from a merit-based program to a needs-based program by implementing parent income caps.
Described by some as welfare for the state’s rich, proponents of such a move suggest that the state is wasting money by subsidizing the tuition costs for middle- and upper-income families who would have sent their children to college on their own expense anyway.
They also point out that the program started out limiting those eligible to only those whose family’s income was below $66,000. It was later raised to $100,000 and eventually eliminated.
Another suggestion has been to set a standard amount students receive in HOPE money annually regardless of how much tuition and costs might increase. For instance, some have suggested the amount be set at 70 percent of costs.
This year alone, approved tuition increases at the state’s universities and technical schools will cost HOPE at least $54 million more.
Still others have suggested that academic requirements be increased, perhaps including a minimum SAT score in determining eligibility. This is brought on by the fact that about two-thirds of college students receiving HOPE lose the scholarship at some point because of poor grades.
For one of Georgia’s greatest success stories to continue, it’s clear that long-range changes must be made.
After all, today may be the day.

Carter represents Bryan County. He can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building Room 302-B, Atlanta, Ga, 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109.

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