Georgia Working to Keep HOPE Scholarship Alive

More than one million Georgia high school students have gone to college with the state picking up the tuition tab. Since 1993, the HOPE Scholarship Program – funded by the state lottery – has paid college tuition for Georgia students regardless of family income. In fact, it is the largest merit-based scholarship program in the U.S. and it was the first of its kind.

But now the program, or parts of it, is drying up.

“My 2012 budget does not authorize HOPE expenditures beyond what the lottery brings in,” said Gov. Nathan Deal during a speech to the legislature. “Therefore, we must act now to maintain this jewel known as HOPE.”

In order to stay in the program, a student must maintain a 3.0 GPA. According to the state Board of Regents, 29 percent of college students who are enrolled in Georgia’s 35 public universities qualified for the scholarship this year. That’s not including the students with a 3.0 or higher at private universities. With money tight, requirements to get the HOPE scholarship could change.

“The projections show the gap between revenue and expense will continue to expand and move farther apart,” said Tim Connell, the president of Georgia Student Finance Commission. “It’s a path that is not sustainable.”

He also said the scholarship may start paying for some tuition, but not all.

“From our perspective, all the options are all on the table,” said Connell. “It is pretty much recognized that books and [student] fees will have to end.”

Other states such as Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina have similar lottery-based scholarships and similar money troubles. Tennessee is seeing a greater number of residents going back to school to beef up their resumes and the funds are strained. In the past, lawmakers in Florida and West Virginia reduced the amount of the scholarships doled out to meet budget requirements.

Kennesaw State senior Noel Garwick admits the HOPE Scholarship was something he didn’t appreciate. He lost his scholarship two years ago because his grades dropped. He said if the GPA requirements get any harder, or the program offers less money, it would have been even more difficult to keep up.

“I think it would put more pressure on students; they’re young. They don’t understand or appreciate the privileges to get it,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the program has been challenged. John Millsaps, a spokesperson for the Board of Regents, says it’s not just budget shortcomings this time. More and more students are qualifying for the perk. That increase in demand is coupled with tuition hikes.

“Since its creation, [the HOPE Scholarship] has served over 1.2 million students and provided benefits totaling $5 billion. It has also established the first universal pre-kindergarten program that has served over one million children,” Gov. Deal said.

The longer the program has been around, the more students take advantage of it and stay in Georgia.

“Roughly 65 percent of students who graduate tend to stay in the immediate area,” Millsaps said. “We benefit, the whole state does, by the program which is the reason people want to protect it.”

He can’t speculate the future or give an opinion if the program does get reduced, but said it shows a higher level of performance among the younger generations.

“It certainly has helped raise the bar,” Millsaps said. “We’ve seen an upward trend of what’s expected and demanded of in all levels; the more you prepare academically the better chance it will be retained in college.”

Students and legislators alike are optimistic, and the program will not disappear completely.

“HOPE is a unique treasure to Georgia,” said state Sen. Chip Rogers. “This vital program is one of the greatest things Georgia has done to advance higher education and enhance economic development. HOPE has positive impact on our economy, our families, and our communities. The time to act is now. We must work toward a solution to ensure a bright and prosperous future for this grand legacy.”