A bill to increase the minimum amount available to high school seniors who qualify for the HOPE scholarship passed the Georgia Senate on Wednesday with almost no opposition. Given the importance of education, and the hits HOPE took during the years of struggling economy, there's no obvious downside to that.
There are, however, some very obvious and very important questions that need to be asked and answered in the House before this bill becomes law.
Sponsored by Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, the bill would set a $2,000 per semester minimum for HOPE-qualified students, with a per-credit-hour minimum of $134. (A student must be enrolled in at least five credit hours of classes to qualify for HOPE.)
"This should be something all Georgians support," Bethel told reporters.
Well yes. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, which at this point aren't exactly on prominent display. And after 20-plus years of HOPE, we know some of the details that have needed dealing with.
Economic fluctuation is a big one. (If some Georgia politicians ever pull off a stunningly ill-conceived scheme to shift more state revenue to notoriously volatile and regressive sales taxes, it will be an even bigger one.)
In the robust economies of the 1990s, the lottery-funded HOPE chest could keep up with tuition increases -- a circumstance which, many believe, made it all too tempting to raise tuition. Then HOPE funds slumped with the 2008 recession, which didn't keep colleges and universities, in Georgia or anywhere else, from continuing to raise costs anyway. Georgia lawmakers had no choice but to trim back HOPE scholarships to 90 percent for most eligible students -- still a great deal for many, but a deal breaker for many others who found the unpaid 10 percent prohibitive.
Against that background, Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker, asked the obvious and reasonable question of whether tuition increases would be likely if the bill passed; Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, asked if the bill addresses maximum as well as minimum limits. Bethel said the new numbers would not result in future tuition hikes, because he doesn't believe the Board of Regents wants to risk losing students.
That seems more a hopeful (no pun intended) prediction than a confident one. Or perhaps it's a political shot across the regents' bow from a legislature with which the University System of Georgia has, not infrequently, been at odds over the years, especially on the subject of money. (The regents recently announced that state colleges and universities would be holding the line on tuition for the 2016-17 academic calendar.) In any case, there's no way any lawmaker can predict college costs beyond the coming year.
Certainly Bethel is right that Georgians should support shoring up the HOPE scholarship program, which has been a resounding success. But his colleagues on both sides of the aisle have raised issues that need addressing.