Georgia View: The Real Politics Of Hope

We’ve met the man from Hope, Ark., and a President all about “hope and change,” but here in Georgia, HOPE is a much more tangible and concrete resource for thousands of households. Since Zell Miller created the state’s most popular income redistribution program, the Georgia Lottery, HOPE has handed out more than $11.7 billion in HOPE Scholarships, pre-kindergarten and education program funding. More than 1.2 million Georgia students have received the HOPE scholarship.

HOPE now provides more dollars and resources annually than the Georgia General Assembly to many of Georgia’s public college and university campuses. The University of Georgia, the flagship institution of the university system, receives the largest share of HOPE scholar dollars, with 90,824 tuitions paid since the program’s inception in 1993.

The Georgia Lottery has been the only increasing source of revenue collected by the State of Georgia these past few years. That is the good news. The bad news is that the demand for HOPE scholarships and the voluntary Pre-K program, which the lottery also funds, are outstripping sales revenues from the lottery. For the first time since its creation, the Georgia Lottery will be dipping into an operating reserve of $1 billion to cover all of the obligations made to HOPE scholars this fall.

Significantly altering this subsidy and the recognition of Georgia’s brightest and best scholars would be political suicide. That said, some sail trimming is in order, or in a few years when kids now in middle school go reaching for that HOPE cookie jar, it may be empty.

The easy cuts to discuss are trimming away the textbook allowance fees of up to $150 per student per semester. A bit harder is trimming out the mandatory student activities fees, transportation fees, etc. embedded in most tuitions.

Georgia colleges are already implementing painful tuition hikes this fall. Now HOPE is essentially faced with a choice between two tough paths: cut or cap benefits or raise eligibility requirements.

Discussion is already under way to set a cap on the annual scholarship payment to students of $5,000 or $6,000 instead of the more open-ended funding of “tuition.” This would impact campuses quite differently. On some campuses, $5,000 would more than cover annual tuition and related expenses; but it would come in well under cost at places like UGA, Georgia Tech and Georgia State. A cut in available scholarship checks for larger campuses could also result in a second consecutive year of tuition and fee increases.

In 1995, the income eligibility requirement for HOPE scholars (that allowed the awards to be given only to students in households with incomes under $100,000) was removed because the scholarship is given to recognize the individual student’s academic merit and performance. Current HOPE eligibility requirements include being a resident of the state of Georgia for at least one year and graduating from high school with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 – a B average. Keeping HOPE simply requires maintaining that B average.

As there are strong suspicions of “grade-flation” in some school systems caused by the draw of HOPE scholar dollars, the minimum GPA might be raised. Income eligibility requirements might also be restored, or scaled, with higher income households receiving declining levels of HOPE subsidy. But such measures are highly unlikely.

Schools could also set a cap on the number of eligible HOPE slots each year, similar to the one that exists with the voluntary Pre-K program. In the first year of Pre-K, there were only 725 takers statewide. Now most metro-area school systems have a lottery for their Pre-K classroom slots, as well as waiting lists.

While instate Georgia tuition remains nationally competitive, the HOPE scholarship and free Pre-K have turned into two of the state’s most effective economic development weapons for wooing corporate relocations.

Still, the funding choices pit toddlers against college freshmen and the upper income set against those on the lower end of the spectrum. Making changes to one of state government’s most popular initiatives in a century won’t be easy. Anyone care to place a wager?

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