As Georgia begins a new year and legislative session, the state has an opportunity to accelerate equitable economic growth by focusing its financial aid resources on those who will most benefit. The pandemic-induced recession illustrates how Georgians without degrees are most vulnerable, with unemployment rates for individuals with a high school education only (37 percent of adult Georgians) consistently double that of those with a college degree. Past economic recoveries provided vastly different opportunities to those with a college degree and those without.
Georgia’s workforce will be stronger in a post-pandemic economy if more individuals have postsecondary credentials without taking on excessive student debt burden. The following ideas can reduce race and income-based inequalities in the state’s financial aid structures.
1. Bolster financial aid for technical college students.
Technical colleges serve as a more affordable access point to higher education for a racially and ethnically diverse population of students who seek to graduate into the workforce or continue their education with a four-year degree. The HOPE Career Grant, started under Gov. Nathan Deal, restores full tuition benefits to students pursuing certain fields. But instead of choosing program winners and losers, full-tuition HOPE Grant support should extend across all technical college fields, which already align with regional workforce needs. Full-tuition support should also include associate degrees, which have grown in popularity and now enroll more students than technical certificates and diplomas.
2. Fund need-based scholarships and grants.
Students arrive at school with very different access to financial resources that help support them through college. But Georgia’s financial aid structure ignores these differences. The state awards most dollars using measures that reflect accumulated advantages and disadvantages and reward past performance. The result is colleges and universities that largely reproduce inequalities, rather than providing opportunity.
Georgians need a real investment into college affordability through need-based awards. First structured as a need-based scholarship, HOPE is now the largest state-funded scholarship in the country that ignores financial need. Georgia is one of two states without broad need-based scholarships. The state’s hybrid merit-need scholarship (REACH Georgia) reaches too few students. Though some individual colleges offer need-based scholarships, most schools lack the fundraising ability to fill financial gaps for their students and those with the most resources tend to serve the fewest students with financial need.
3. Maximize the potential and use of lottery funds.
When voters approved the creation of the lottery, the law stipulated that it turn more than 35 percent of ticket sales over to the state for education. In practice, the share is closer to 25 percent. At current ticket sales levels, a one percentage point increase would mean more than an additional $40 million for education. Over time, the state treasury has also amassed nearly $1.3 billion in lottery reserves from unspent surplus funds, exceeding the legal shortfall requirement for HOPE by more than $780 million. The reserves could be spent down over time or converted to an endowment whose earnings are dedicated to education. FY 2020 interest earned on lottery reserves totaled $23 million.
4. End state-funded student loans and provide debt relief.
Policymakers created Student Access Loans amid major changes to HOPE in 2011 as a “loan of last resort.” Georgia is the only state to lend state dollars to students, and it spends $26 million on the program every year. It is time to end the program. Instead of adding to students’ existing debt—and the state’s administrative burden for servicing loans—the state should award scholarships or grants as a budget-neutral, economy-boosting, efficient and effective use of lottery funds.
The state should also provide debt relief for Student Access Loan borrowers. Current relief options benefit few borrowers, and the program suffers high default rates. Excessive student debt hurts individuals’ and ultimately communities’ economic strength. These four ideas will help build a more prosperous and resilient Georgia.