When I read more than 10,000 financially-strapped students were dropped off Georgia’s college rolls in the 2014-2015 school year in a report we published last week, I was reminded again how fortunate I was to get help based on my modest finances at critical times so I could stay in class. I can’t count the times I stood in the financial aid office lines explaining why I was short tuition money and couldn’t pay by the deadline.

Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship is a great thing for thousands of college students and their families. As our report shows, it also leaves thousands of potential graduates behind because it doesn’t make a priority of keeping financially-strapped students in school.

I am a first-generation college student and remember my mom telling me that I can do anything and be anything I want. My dad worked three jobs and my mom also worked to help make my college dreams a reality. Even as we stretched as a family and sacrificed, it wasn’t enough. Not even my Philly street-smarts, self-determination, a dream and parental support were quite enough. I’ll never know how long I’d have taken to graduate without the support of a financial aid package that factored in ability to pay.

Today thousands of Georgians with untapped potential fall short of getting the good education that can help provide a secure future for their families largely because college is no longer affordable.  Many don’t qualify for merit programs like the HOPE Scholarship.  Without HOPE, the financial burden to pay for college solely out of pocket through loans and part-time work creates tremendous economic hardship and often prevents these students from completing their studies in a timely way or at all.

State leaders often point out how critical a postsecondary education will be for Georgia’s future workers and the state’s economy as a whole. Students are much more likely to be relegated to low-paying, dead-end jobs that limit long-term economic security for themselves and their families when they lack postsecondary education, training and credentials.  They are much more likely to be left behind and left out of Georgia’s growing and diversifying economy where employers are desperate for skilled labor.  Importing skilled labor from other states, as Georgia does to a large extent today, may meet business demands. That creates an unsustainable lack of development of our home-grown workforce. We need a Georgia grown solution that meets the needs of our residents.

State funding for postsecondary education plummeted in recent years on a per-student basis, putting upward pressure on tuition and other costs of college. Those rising costs mean financial aid programs like HOPE and the federal Pell Grant don’t go nearly as far as they once did. The financial gaps that exist make completion much harder and undermine Georgia’s goals to improve graduation rates to prepare for a 21st century economy.

Developing need-based aid tools is an economic imperative for Georgia. If Georgia wants to retain its much-touted reputation as the No. 1 place to do business, it also needs to become the No. 1 place to find a high-skilled, well-trained worker. It’s time to recognize that helping the students who will become Georgia’s future workforce stay in school is a winning economic development strategy.

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