In 2022, Georgia lawmakers can follow through on initiatives begun last year to invest in college affordability and reduce excessive student debt burden. Georgians without postsecondary credentials are still most vulnerable in the economy, and many ambitious and persistent Georgians struggle to graduate because of challenges balancing work, family, health and finances. The following targeted strategies and investments can boost graduation rates, transform lives and reduce racial, ethnic and income-based inequalities so college is not just a privilege for the wealthy few.
1. Sustain the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Funds Pilot Program
Students arrive at school with different responsibilities and access to financial support. But Georgia’s financial aid structure ignores these differences. As one of two states without a broad need-based scholarship and a hybrid merit-need scholarship (REACH Georgia) that reaches relatively few students, Georgia awards most financial aid dollars using measures that reflect accumulated socio-economic advantages and disadvantages. The state does not target dollars to boost the likelihood of graduation for students who need additional financial support to finish their education and pursue a road to a better life. Scaling a “last mile” or “gap funding” approach with state dollars, also known as retention or completion grants, would provide more financial aid for students who have made substantial progress in their degree programs but face financial barriers to graduation. Last January, Gov. Kemp announced a $5 million investment of federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds to provide small grants to help students with financial barriers finish their degrees. Despite a slow start, the grants have helped 1,300 students continue their education at a cost of $660,000. The university system anticipates distributing all remaining funds in the next year and a half.
Additionally, the state treasury now sits on $1 billion of unrestricted lottery reserves that could be used for financial support for students.
Georgia can use state funds to continue and expand this innovative approach to financial aid. Georgians need a state-funded investment strategy to enhance college affordability through need-based awards. College affordability is too important to leave in the hands of donors, philanthropists or individual institutions.
Ridge Hudson is an English major at Georgia State University (GSU) from Sylvania, population less than 3,000. He has faced a long road to get to GSU. He started his college career at Valdosta State University. As the first in his family to go to college, he says, “I went into college blind.” He took 19 credit hours, felt overwhelmed, and suffered from anxiety and depression. “I had no type of guide,” he says. After struggling at Valdosta, he moved back to his hometown to work and save up. He enrolled in East Georgia State College and then transferred to Georgia Southern University. Unfortunately, financial and mental health challenges struck again, and he had to leave school again. Undeterred, Ridge had a chance to move to Atlanta and enrolled in Georgia State University-Perimeter in Clarkston before transferring to the Atlanta campus. He says, “When I moved [to Atlanta], my GPA was below a 2.0. I was discouraged. [Georgia State] accepted me and allowed me to prove that I could do it.” At GSU, he found a community got an on-campus job and the resources he needed to succeed. He says, “This school has defined my experience. My time has been transformative.”
By 2019, he had exhausted his Pell Grant eligibility. He was working two jobs and supporting himself financially to pay for school and live in Atlanta. He had a remaining balance on his account and received the Panther Retention Grant. “It was a blessing to me,” he says. “I was definitely grateful… It’s been a major factor in how far I’ve gone. The Panther Retention Grant gives you a mental release too… the grant alleviates the burden.”
“If I fall down, I get back up and keep going. I have that mindset. You don’t wallow; you don’t quit; you don’t drop. You get up and keep going.”
2. Remove the Special Institutional Fee From Tuition Bills
The university system adopted the Special Institutional Fee (SIF) in 2009 as a temporary measure to make up for budget cuts. Today it generates about $230 million in revenue and is the largest fee most students pay, representing up to 42 percent of total mandatory fees ($170 to $544 per semester). Unlike other fees that support specific services, the SIF acts as a supplemental revenue stream to tuition, keeping general operating expenses. Students cannot use HOPE to help pay the SIF because it is classified as a fee.
The governor’s FY 2023 budget proposes eliminating the Special Institutional Fee and increasing appropriations to the university system to keep colleges and universities whole. Doing this would reduce mandatory fees for students by 40 percent and make progress towards shifting financial burden away from students’ tuition and fees.
3. Invest More Financial Aid in Technical College Students
Demand for skilled technical college graduates has grown as student enrollment has dropped. For students pursuing technical certificates and diplomas in one of seventeen “high-demand” fields, Hope Career Grants cover full tuition for about half of certificate/diploma students. Full-tuition support should extend across all technical college fields, which already align with regional workforce needs. Lawmakers should also consider extending HOPE and Zell Miller Grant support to fees, which can be extensive and burdensome, and to students in associate degree programs. Technical colleges serve as a more affordable access point to higher education for a racially, ethnically, economically and geographically diverse population of students who seek to graduate into the workforce or continue their education with a four-year degree.
4. Stop Adding to Student Debt Burden and Provide Student Access Loan Debt Relief
Georgia’s largest need-based aid program is a student loan program. Though Student Access Loans are not codified in statute, they began operating under the Georgia Student Finance Authority in 2011 amid major changes to HOPE. The General Assembly appropriates $26 million to the loans every year. Nearly one-third of SAL borrowers default on their loans within three years, compared to ten percent for federal loan borrowers. Student borrowers have described problems with the website and online payment system, administrative errors and poor communication and customer service.
Georgia is the only state to continuously lend state dollars to students. It is time to end the practice and stop adding to students’ existing debt and the state’s administrative burden for servicing loans. Instead, the state should implement other ways to provide financial aid to students who need it. The state should also provide more debt relief for Student Access Loan borrowers, as few benefit from current relief options.
These four ideas will help build a more prosperous and resilient Georgia. Read more about our policy priorities to support families, build healthy communities and more in 2022.