Bill aims to help more low-income Georgians pay for college

Georgia lawmakers passed legislation in the final hours before they left the state Capitol for good this session that many say marks the state’s most expansive effort to help low-income public college students earn their degrees.

The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk that offers grants each semester to low-income students ineligible for the HOPE Scholarship, provided they meet certain criteria. The guidelines and grants will be set by the Georgia Student Finance Commission. Initial annual cost estimates for the grant range from $25 million to $40 million.

Middle Georgia State University senior Lizzie Mathias, who said she’s taken about $24,000 in student loans to complete her education, is excited about the legislation. She said the tuition gap some semesters has been about $1,200.

“Many of us wouldn’t have had to take out these loans if there had been needs-based aid,” said Mathias, 21, who has several part-time jobs on campus.

Mathias said she knows some students who’ve had to take fewer classes because they can’t afford full tuition, resulting in them staying longer in college. Some left permanently, she said.

Just half of low-income high school graduates in Georgia go on to college, according to state data. The national average is 67 percent for students whose families are in the bottom 20 percent of all family incomes.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, chairman of that chamber’s higher education committee, proposed the changes through Senate Bill 405, which eventually was included in another piece of legislation, House Bill 787.

“We thought after four years we could have another 28,000 people graduating college,” Millar said Friday, explaining the rationale for the legislation.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution partnered with The Hechinger Report last year on a series of articles about student aid in Georgia that highlighted the growing financial burden for many low-income college students. HOPE Scholarship funding declined in a recent five-year stretch by about $130 million. More students are leaving college with greater student loan debt.

Georgia is one of only two states in the country that does not offer state aid programs weighted to financial need, the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said in a September 2017 report. The report urged the state to adopt a need-based grant program.

“College grants that consider a family’s financial situation would support more students in achieving their education and career goals,” said Jennifer Lee, the institute’s higher education policy analyst.

The number of Georgia students receiving some form of HOPE aid has dropped since lawmakers overhauled the program in 2011, tying the amount awarded to lottery revenue instead of tuition rates.

There have been some efforts in recent years to help financially struggling students.

Georgia State University started a retention grant program several years ago that offers students $300 or more a semester to pay their tuition. About 2,000 students received grants last year.

Georgia created the REACH Scholarship in 2012, which offers students $1,250 a semester, largely through private donations raised by local public school districts. About 3,000 students are expected to be REACH Scholarship recipients by 2020.

Still, many pushed for additional ways to help more students, particularly once they arrive on campus.

Lee watched closely Thursday as lawmakers took the final vote on HB 787.

“This is a huge step forward for Georgia,” she said minutes after the vote.

Millar joked about the rare support from Lee’s nonprofit institute. Millar has said he pushed for the legislation not only to help students, but because he believes it’s important to the region’s economy to produce more college graduates.

Millar said during Friday’s interview he will now work with officials on legislation to make the minimum initial tuition payment each semester 25 percent, saying some students cannot afford higher or full payments.

Information about the costs of college in Georgia, from The Hechinger Report and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As state funding for higher education decreased over the past decade, the burden for paying for school has shifted to students and families. In 2009, tuition accounted for less than a third of general funding for the University of Georgia System’s schools. In 2017, 46 percent of that general revenue came from families. 

The cost of attending college in Georgia has grown at one of the fastest rates in the nation over the last decade. A 2016 state audit found that the average cost of attendance at Georgia’s public institutions – including mandatory fees and room and board – grew from $8,361 in 2006 to $14,791 in 2015. 

Georgia was one of two states, along with New Hampshire, without a need-based aid program for students attending the state’s public institutions. Georgia also prohibits its colleges from using any state appropriations or tuition money to provide individual scholarships or grants of any kind to students. That means schools must turn to their endowments or to private money to provide financial aid. During the 2013-14 school year, the unmet need of students at USG institutions totaled about $660 million, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. 

Between 2014 and 2016 more than 177,000 students left Georgia public institutions with debt; 125,000 of them withdrew without receiving a degree, according to the most recent federal data available. The Hechinger Report and AJC reported on these former students with debt and no degree last year and found that the cost of attending college was a major contributing factor in why they dropped out.  

Links to the three Debt Without Degree stories 

Students drown in debt despite a $524 million state surplus

 The human cost of college debt that becomes a “purgatory”

 State cuts money to higher education while student costs skyrocket

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