The Wall Street Journal this week examined the impact of changes to Georgia’s HOPE scholarships made by the legislature in 2011, and the picture isn’t pretty. According to the Journal’s analysis, the legislature’s decision to boost academic requirements for HOPE, reduce awards and create a new Zell Miller Scholarship with the most rigorous requirements and generous award protected benefits for students from Georgia’s wealthiest communities while leaving those who need the most help paying for college in the lurch. Students who win a Zell Miller Scholarship are much more likely to come from families whose income is above the state median than those below it. At the same time, these changes cut or even eliminated HOPE benefits for many other students, often from lower-income areas. The number of students who received a HOPE award fell by 21 percent between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, data from the Georgia Student Finance Commission indicates. Students in the Technical College System of Georgia have been hit hardest by the changes: the number of HOPE grants going to them plummeted by 30 percent during this period.
The changes to HOPE – which were made because lottery revenues that fund the scholarships and grants weren’t keeping pace with need — have spurred debate about merit-based financial aid programs and need-based ones, suggesting that policymakers must chose one or the other. However, a report released earlier this year by GBPI, HOPE on a Tightrope, laid out a strategy for Georgia to reward its best students with HOPE scholarships and provide grants to low-income students.
Investing in low-income students is urgent. Through Complete College Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal is pressing for significant gains in the percentage of young people who complete two- or four-year college degrees, as well as certificate, diploma or apprenticeship programs at technical schools. A workforce with advanced training, skills and knowledge will make Georgia attractive to new business and grow our economy. To get there, we have to make sure more of our students, especially more of our low-income students, have the resources they need to complete a program beyond high school. As the Journal’s analysis shows, however, the changes to HOPE are pulling funding away from these students. This isn’t good for them, and it’s not good for Georgia.