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Changes needed for state HOPE

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POSTED: March 2, 2011 11:05 a.m.

Sometimes a good idea is so good it’s hard to sustain over the long haul. That’s often true with ideas that come from government that depend on revenues that blow with the economic winds.
The HOPE scholarship is such an idea, one so popular it now must be severely altered if it is to survive.
Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal announced his proposed changes to the 18-year-old college aid program. Because of dwindling revenues from the Georgia lottery that funds the scholarship, it must be scaled back to preserve existing resources.
The program was the brainchild of former Gov. Zell Miller and approved by Georgia voters in 1992. It was simple, yet perfect: All Georgia students who graduated from high school with a B average could receive fully-paid tuition, plus stipends for books and fees, to a state-run college or university, all paid for by the state-run lottery.
Too perfect. And maybe too popular.
As the lottery began rolling its little balls in 1993, Georgians queued up at convenience stores and supermarkets to play the get-rich games. Their dollars funded the HOPE scholarship and statewide pre-kindergarten classes.
In its first year, the HOPE program paid out $21.4 million in tuition and grants to Georgia students. This fiscal year, some 236,000 students are receiving benefits of about $639 million. All totaled, HOPE has paid $5.9 billion to some 1.3 million Georgia students.
But the math has begun to go awry in recent years. With more students receiving more aid and college tuition and costs rising, the drain on the program has been huge. Meanwhile lottery revenues have dipped as fewer people play as often, in an era of 10 percent unemployment.
By burning its candle at both ends, HOPE was headed for a crash without major changes. Deal’s proposal would allow students who qualified for HOPE before, the B averages, to receive 90 percent of tuition and cuts funds for books and fees. Students who post a 3.7 grade-point average and 1,200 SAT or 26 ACT scores still would qualify for a full ride.
He also proposed offering $10 million in low-interest loans for students who can’t maintain a 3.0 and will sign on to teach math or science in public schools. The plan also would cut the length of the pre-K school day from 6½ hours to four.
Most have applauded the proposal, knowing that changes are needed to save the program and that more stringent reforms were possible and still may be needed later.
One thing HOPE has yet to address is means testing, providing help for students from middle- and lower-income families while letting the wealthier pay their own way. That provision was included in the original HOPE plan, capping family income for qualifiers at $100,000, but abolished two years later when the fund was flush with cash. A return to such limits could be in the program’s future.
The initial tweak to HOPE standards would save the program some $300 million, Deal said. The thought is that as the economy improves and more Georgians go back to work, lottery proceeds will catch up with demand and keep the program afloat without more draconian changes.
Some students criticize the moves, saying the state is breaking its promise to them. We can understand why they would feel that way; they have high stakes at risk, and are relying on the scholarship for their education and future.
But an objective view paints a picture of a state trying to keep that promise as best as it can under circumstances that no one could have envisioned years ago. A smaller HOPE is better than none at all.
The rising costs of a college education are the x-factor that lottery proceeds can’t seem to stay in step with. A semester at a leading state university has gone from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of three decades.
Some of this rise in costs can be attributed to HOPE itself. More students eligible for college mean schools need more classroom space, more buildings, more professors, more everything. There likely are other factors as well, from higher salaries paid to instructors and administrators to the increased need for technology to replace antiquated learning methods.
Some want the HOPE program to be supplemented by tax revenues from the state’s general fund. But the state already is struggling to fund basic needs and keep the budget out of the hole. Tax revenues have dropped along with lottery proceeds; folks without jobs don’t buy tickets and they don’t pay income tax.
Less money coming in, more going out. At some point, someone had to put a finger in the dike before the scholarship was flooded with red ink.
The good news is that HOPE and pre-K both live on. Students who find themselves on the cusp of qualifying for the full scholarship might find the incentive for that final push. And as long as it remains in place, more good students will stay in Georgia, a boost to the state’s economy.
There was a time before the HOPE program when students and their parents were left on their own to pay for college. With the right moves now, Georgia leaders can make sure we don’t return to those days.
The plan to save HOPE for now is a practical first step, one the legislature should approve. If so, Deal will have kept one of his first major promises of his campaign.
All of those 1.3 million bright students who have benefited from Miller’s program are a testament to what HOPE means to Georgia. Now those wise graduates need to help figure out how to help preserve it for the next generation of thinkers and doers.

 

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