HOPE, students still need help

Nobody seriously disputes that Georgia’s HOPE scholarship and grant programs have been a major success story. That it has been a model for other such programs attests to its value.

HOPE was of course the brainchild of then-Gov. Zell Miller, who made it clear from the outset that this was intended to be an achievement-based, rather than a needs- or means-based plan like the Pell Grant and other such programs.

A study released this week by the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute provides statistical evidence that for all its successes, HOPE is in fact not achieving what was never its primary purpose — namely, providing access to postsecondary education for low-income students.

According to the GBPI analysis, only about 20 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic college students in Georgia get either the HOPE or the elite Zell Miller scholarships, as opposed to nearly half of white and Asian-American students (45 and 46 percent, respectively).

The study attributes some of that disparity to the greater educational hurdles poor children face from the outset. Another factor is the economic pinch that forced the state to limit funding for the program even as college costs have continued to escalate. While HOPE remains a great bargain, leaving students to pay only a part of college expenses, that “co-pay” is still way out of reach for too many lower-income families, and it’s only getting more so.

The HOPE Grant, which provides funding for students at the state’s technical colleges, fares much better, according to the GBPI report. It helps almost three-fourths of technical college students, including an impressive 85 percent of low-income students. Approximately 75 percent of the white students, 54 percent of Asian students, 70 percent of Hispanic students and 73 percent of black students benefit from HOPE Grants.

Given that the skills the Technical College System teaches are the ones for which Georgia is almost literally crying out, that’s indeed a bright part of the picture.

The issue, then, is not a failure of HOPE (nor does the study imply one), but the need for more means-based education assistance.

“In a quickly diversifying state that also struggles with widespread poverty,” the report summary notes, “students need more options to gain valued skills and enter successful careers, regardless of their families’ background or bank account.”

Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “in the next five years, we need 200,000 more people who have post-secondary credentials, certificates, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, to fill the jobs we are creating. We have got to find solutions to get first-time people in a family going to technical college or four-year college. With the current course of action, we are not getting there.”

HOPE has helped thousands who earned it. There are thousands more who are also earning it, but still can’t afford it. Wasted talent is a heavy public expense.