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Opinion: We overcorrected HOPE Scholarship and students suffered. Time to reopen debate.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D- Smyrna, has made education a focus in the Georgia Legislature. A north Georgia native, Evans attended the University of Georgia on a HOPE Scholarship. She is now an attorney.

When the General Assembly began to tinker with HOPE four years ago in response to mounting financial pressures on the beloved program, Evans urged a sliding income scale to ensure students from Georgia's poorest families continued to receive full tuition.

Her effort failed. Instead, the General Assembly approved Gov. Nathan Deal's HOPE plan, which did the following:

•Full HOPE --- now the Zell Miller scholarship --- goes only to students with a 3.7 grade point average and at least a 1200 on the 1600-scale SAT.

•Students with a 3.0 high school GPA earn what I call HOPE Lite, which is based on available lottery funds. So, in 2014, HOPE Lite paid 79 percent of tuition for a student taking 15 hours at the University of Georgia. HOPE no longer covers any books or fees.

In its review of the impact of those changes, the AJC found most Zell Miller scholars come from affluent metro Atlanta schools. That finding makes sense as SAT scores correlate with the income and educational attainment of parents, which is why poor teens, whether rural or urban, don't earn Zell Miller awards at the same rate as more affluent suburban counterparts.

(Recognizing there would be areas of Georgia where no students would qualify for Zell Miller because of the high SAT threshold, full HOPE now also goes to each high school's valedictorian and salutatorian so at least two students in a county get it.)

With that background, here is Evan's essay:

By Stacey Evans

Georgia and the country have a tuition problem.  Higher education has never been so expensive. Nationally, tuition has increased well over 300 percent since 1988, while inflation has increased roughly 85 percent.

And here at home, we’re not immune. Just two months ago, the Board of Regents voted to raise tuition up to 9 percent, for an average system wide increase of 3 percent.

There is no silver bullet in addressing the cost of education.  It is an expensive endeavor. And when tuition increases, so does the debt burden placed on the backs of students.  At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would offer debt relief to students by allowing them to refinance their loans and receive lower interest rates.

President Obama is also working to offer free community college for students that make a 2.5 GPA, which would also decrease the debt load thrust on students under our current system. These proposals are huge steps in the right direction, and I hope Congress will take serious steps to make them the law of the land.

Georgia has a rich history of playing a vital role in national education policy, as well as a rich history in finding solutions that fit our very unique set of problems.  And I think it’s time to address that distinct set of issues facing our students and their families.

Georgia has a vested interest in making sure the capital projects that are intrinsically associated with the “college experience” today, such as massive student and recreation centers, do not price out Georgians or strap them with debt. As the value of a HOPE Scholarship and Grant diminishes, I’m afraid that is what we’re facing.

It does not have to be this way, and we know that because in Georgia, it hasn’t been that way. Twenty-three years ago, Georgia voters approved the lottery because that money would go to students. Since the 2011 alterations to the HOPE program, the lottery has saved over and beyond what they intended and that number grows every day.

As tuition continues to rise, and the value of HOPE decreases, Georgia is creeping further away from that promise. At the same time, the lottery has saved roughly twice what they’re required to save statutorily.

As a legislator and a former HOPE Scholar who would not have been able to afford to attend the University of Georgia under the current HOPE structure, this troubles me. I grew up poor in the mountains of North Georgia, but I knew if I kept my end of the bargain and kept my grades up, Gov. Zell Miller and the state would keep their end, I could go to college despite our family’s income.

Addressing rising tuition must be done nationally and locally. And it is going to be hard. But, in the meantime, we cannot continue down the unsustainable path of passing the cost off to the student in the form of large debt. It’s bad for the student, their future, our economy and the state as a whole.

Georgia has historically been at the forefront of making a deal with students: if you work hard in high school and in college, we’ll help you cover tuition costs. That’s simply not the case anymore.  That bargain, while not wholly abandoned, slips further away every time tuition rises and we stick with the system we have.

As the President and members of Congress look for ways to address this nationally, I am looking at ways to responsibly reinvest in that bargain with Georgia.

The good news is that there are options. It is possible to renew this bargain and for the lottery to remain fiscally sound for generations of students. I wouldn’t recommend doing anything to jeopardize this. But when tuition increases and decreasing HOPE value is occurring while money above the required lottery shortfall reserves is accruing, we are doing something wrong.

We have overcorrected and, should we stay this course, we are doing so at the expense of a bargain that has become part of the fabric of Georgia.

Next session, I will put forward legislation that gets us back to the bargain we made with Georgia’s families because frankly I know they will keep their end of the deal. I know because I did. I never asked for a hand out, and neither did my family. We just did the work necessary to hold up our end.

Because of that bargain, I was able to go from a trailer on the Georgia-Tennessee line to the halls of the University of Georgia. That is what the bargain of HOPE did for me.  And we owe it to the thousands of Georgia’s students and their families to continue the rich tradition of holding up our end as a state.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.