From the Publisher: Just One Wish

Making the case for need-based funding for public higher education.

Around this time I’m often writing a bit of a wish list – for Christmas, for 2021, or what have you. When I was younger this list could be several pages long. This year I have just one wish for Georgia: need-based funding for public higher education.

The economic case for education is sound. In the third quarter of last year, median weekly earnings ranged from $606 for those with less than a high school diploma to $1,559 for those with a professional or doctoral degree according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our ability to prime our economy depends on a viable workforce, which increasingly means people with skills requiring more training than a GED.

Unfortunately for many Georgians, particularly in rural regions, the path through secondary education is treacherous.

Georgia has the third-highest number of rural students in the nation. Rural high school students tend to perform better than students living in cities, according to a 2020 report from Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE), with graduation rates slightly above the state average. But they are less likely to complete post-secondary education. GPEE estimates that 60% to 90% of Georgia students enroll in post-secondary programs, but after six years, less than half have earned a credential.

College preparedness is a factor. Only 41.2% of Georgia’s rural students took the ACT or SAT, compared to nearly 70% of students statewide. Only 12% of rural students passed at least one Advanced Placement exam, compared to 23% statewide. The Rural School and Community Trust, a national education nonprofit, wrote that “more than any other gauge, it is the dire college readiness rankings that drive Georgia’s ranking as the seventh most serious situation for rural education in the U.S.”

Poverty is another factor. Within the 2012 University System of Georgia cohort, less than half of students whose families earned less than $35,000 a year graduated or earned a degree. Various task forces have concluded that access to healthcare, food security and transportation for impoverished K-12 students and parents are as important as school funding and teacher retention. More mentoring and early job experience can also make a critical difference.

Still the most glaring factor blocking students from completing post-secondary education is cost. Georgia offers the HOPE Grant, HOPE Scholarship and HOPE Career Grant as merit-based programs, but no need-based scholarships. The federal government in 2018 proposed reducing student aid including need-based Pell Grants by $200 billion over the next decade.

Georgia’s K-12 public schools have the nation’s eighth-largest percentage of low-income students (62%) and the number is increasing. Low-income students are more likely to take out loans and less likely to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In Georgia, more than half of the class of 2018 graduated with an average debt of $28,824 and Atlanta is second among metropolitan areas in the nation for the most student loan debt.

Dual enrollment, when high schoolers take college classes with reduced or waived tuition, has become critical to education in rural Georgia, and 80% of dual enrollment credits were earned outside the Atlanta and Savannah metro areas in 2017. About 83% of dual enrollment students were attending a post-secondary institution within a year of graduating from high school and almost half of dual enrollees had earned a credential six years later.

But is dual enrollment sustainable? Appropriations grew from $49 million in 2016 to $105 million in 2019. And this is for just over 50,000 students, or 8.5% of all Georgia public high school students. Despite its success, current appropriations for dual enrollment represent less than 1% of Georgia’s total education spending.

And funding for dual enrollment doesn’t appear to be targeted based on systems in need. White students are overrepresented compared to their presence in public schools, and low-income student participation in the program has been lagging, despite representing a majority of the K-12 population.

There are other great programs and collaborations delivering education to those in need in Georgia. But, like dual enrollment, they are not enough to meet our current needs or that of a population expected to grow by 4 million in the next decade.

The General Assembly passed House Bill 787 in 2018, which gave charter schools $17 million annually and called for the creation of a need-based aid program for higher education students. However, details of the need-based program have not been fleshed out and no funding stream has been identified to support it.

Making it easier for students to successfully complete their post-secondary education is a critical piece of revitalizing Georgia’s rural economy. This is not a backburner issue. It is past time to level the playing field for Georgia students. They all deserve a chance.

Categories: From the Publisher, Opinions