How Federal Higher Education Proposals Affect Georgia

Key Takeaways:

  • Federal lawmakers face multiple opportunities to support college affordability and completion for Georgians.
  • Increasing Pell Grants would provide an immediate financial boost to more than 280,000 college students in Georgia.
  • Added funding for colleges and universities to support students complements increased financial aid.
  • Georgia is home to 26 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), and stands to gain from targeted funding for these schools.
  • The current “free community college” proposal would exclude contributions to college affordability made by Georgia’s HOPE Grant program, and discount the access role of colleges that award many technical certificates, diplomas or bachelor’s degrees.

Federal policymakers are considering several strategies to make a college degree more affordable and attainable for students.

Two funding strategies exist to support both affordability and completion: direct funding to students, as grants or loans, and direct funding to colleges and universities, which can use resources to provide better services to students. Most federal funding to support higher education flows to students as financial aid, with very little flowing directly to schools.

Though Georgia funds a large state financial aid program, the aid is not targeted to students with financial need. Colleges and universities struggle to keep up with the needs of their students from families with low incomes, and funding decline has shifted increasing shares of college costs onto students.

A two-pronged strategy works best. Need-based grants are more effective at strong institutions with funding and resources to adequately support and guide their students through college.

At their best, federal and state higher education funding and policies complement each other to make the dream of education after high school a reality for more Georgians. Below are several federal proposals and how they would affect Georgians.

Increased Pell Grants Would Benefit More than 280,000 Georgians

Federal policymakers face multiple opportunities to increase funding for Pell Grants, the country’s primary need-based financial aid program. Congress can boost Pell Grants through the budget and appropriations processes, which would begin increases in Fall 2022, and by passing the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act, which would start phased-in increases in Fall 2023.

Georgia’s college students rely on federal need-based aid as the state is one of only two states that lacks state need-based grants. The need for Pell has grown as state budgets failed to keep up with the growth in students pursuing higher education and the increasing financial need among these students. Today, 85 percent more students qualify for Pell Grants in the University System of Georgia than 15 years ago. At the same time, average student loan debt for graduates has increased by about $11,500, or 70 percent without adjusting for inflation.

A budget boost would benefit the more than 280,000 Georgia students in public and private colleges and universities who depend on Pell Grants to help pay for college costs.[1] Pell Grant recipients reflect the state’s racial and ethnic diversity. In the University System of Georgia, 4 in 10 students receive Pell Grants.[2] Half are white, and half are Black, Hispanic/Latinx or Asian.[3]

An important provision in the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act would extend eligibility to college students who are undocumented immigrants or participate in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).[4] These students have never before been included in federal financial aid. Almost 19,000 individuals in Georgia are DACA participants.[5] This change would be critical for undocumented and DACA students in Georgia, who must pay out-of-state tuition rates that are two to four times higher than in-state tuition rates under state law.

America’s College Promise Act Holds Potential

The America’s College Promise Act outlines a much larger role for the federal government in influencing how much colleges and universities charge for tuition. Many of the policy specifics must be worked out carefully. It is unclear if, as designed, Georgia would opt in. Below is an overview of the proposal’s three major sections and how they would apply to Georgia.

More Funding for Student Success Initiatives Would Boost Existing Reforms Underway

One part of the America’s College Promise Act, known as the “Student Success Fund,” would provide more funding to colleges and universities for “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms and innovative practices to improve student outcomes.” On top of financial aid like Pell Grants, practices like proactive advising, peer mentoring and tutoring and reforms to remedial education can improve graduation rates, especially for first-generation college students, students from families with low incomes and students of color. However, many student services are underfunded and cut first during times of budget strain.

Many Georgia colleges and universities would be working from a good base. The University System of Georgia’s Momentum Year Initiative has initiated several institutional reforms to support college graduation. Colleges have already begun practices that have yielded results and would benefit from a resource boost, including dedicating more resources to advisors, coaches and peer tutors, summer academies for incoming first-year students, co-requisite remediation courses and emergency grants for students.

Participation in the Student Success Fund would require state matching funds, starting at 25 percent  and increasing to a full 100 percent match. It’s not clear how much Georgia colleges and universities would be eligible for, and how much in matching funds they would need to provide.

Tuition Discounts for Students Attending HBCUs and MSIs Could Alleviate Debt Burdens

Another section of the America’s College Promise Act would provide grants to colleges and universities classified as HBCUs or MSIs that serve a large share of students from families with low incomes. Georgia stands to gain a lot from this section, as the state is home to 26 public and private colleges and universities that would qualify. These include nine public colleges and universities in the university system, seven private colleges and 10 technical colleges.[6]

Federal grants would replace all or a significant portion of tuition and fees for students from families with low incomes who attend eligible schools for the first 60 credit hours. The maximum per-student amount would be the national average of annual tuition and fees at public four-year colleges ($9,212), so private HBCUs like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Paine College, which are more expensive, would receive grants to discount, but not fully waive, these costs for their eligible students. Schools would be required to commit to a variety of student support services and participate in articulation agreements that ensure students with an associate degree transferring to four-year colleges can fully transfer their credits to a bachelor’s degree.

Combined with increased Pell Grants, these funds could help alleviate the high student debt burden that many Black students in particular face. However, the steep “cliff” that students will face after the first 60 credit hours could cause barriers to persistence and graduation for students in bachelor’s degree programs.

Effects of Potential “Free” Community College Proposal Unclear in Georgia

Another section of the America’s College Promise Act proposes a partnership between the federal and state governments to achieve so-called “free community college.” States that participate would receive federal grants to replace tuition and fee charges for students at certain colleges, and any excess funds could be used to support activities like industry or sector partnerships, dual enrollment and financial aid at four-year colleges or universities.

Grant amounts would be based on the number of eligible students in a state and 75 percent of the national average resident community college tuition and fees. States would be responsible for contributing 25 percent of this amount.

One way this does not apply well in Georgia is that a significant portion of its higher education funding comes indirectly through non-need-based scholarships and grants, which would not be included in matching funds. About a quarter of tuition and fees paid to technical colleges comes indirectly through lottery-funded HOPE Grants or Scholarships, which are not need-based, although HOPE Grants specifically are broadly accessible, requiring a 2.0 cumulative GPA to qualify.

Another way “free community college” does not apply neatly to Georgia is that the state lacks a community college sector. If “community college” is defined as a school that awards mostly associate degrees, seven colleges in the university system[7] and potentially some, but not all, technical colleges would be eligible. (It’s not clear how recent mergers between two- and four-year colleges would be treated.) Many eligible colleges are in rural areas and have experienced steady enrollment declines. Free tuition may help increase enrollments. However, confusion could arise because seemingly similar schools might not benefit. By focusing on associate degrees only, the policy would ignore schools that award many technical certificates, diplomas and bachelor’s degree, and overlook the important role that technical colleges and schools like Dalton State College and Georgia Gwinnett College play in Georgia to provide accessible education beyond high school to many students.

More Federal Funding for Students and Schools Would Help College Affordability and Completion

We all benefit when more Georgians can continue their education beyond high school. An added boost to Pell Grants and support to strengthen colleges and universities work together to bolster college affordability and completion. Even with low or no tuition and fees, many students still need Pell Grants and loans to help pay for books, transportation and living expenses. To graduate, students need adequate support and guidance. Federal policymakers should move to direct more resources to students, colleges and universities and increase economic opportunities for Georgians.

[1] U.S. Department of Education. Federal Pell Grant Program 2017-2018 End of Year Report, Table 22.

[3] University System of Georgia data.

[4] Created in 2012, DACA is a deportation deferral program that allows some undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to live and work in the country without threat of deportation.

[5] US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Count of active DACA recipients by state or territory (as of June 30, 2021: 18,960).

[6] Technical colleges: Albany, Atlanta, Augusta, Central Georgia, Columbus, Georgia Piedmont, Oconee Fall Line, Savannah, South Georgia, Southern Crescent. USG: Albany State, Fort Valley State, Savannah State, Atlanta Metropolitan College, Clayton State, Dalton State, East Georgia State College, Georgia Gwinnett College, Georgia State University. Private: Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Paine College, Spelman College, Beulah Heights, Helms College and Gupton Jones.

[7] Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Atlanta Metropolitan State College, College of Coastal Georgia, East Georgia State College, Georgia Highlands College, Gordon State College and South Georgia State College.

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