If the "higher" in higher education comes to refer primarily to its cost, then whatever benefit that price tag accrues to the state will ultimately prove to be an expensive and dangerously selective one.
Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, has been especially effective in fighting for the interests of postsecondary students and their families, especially for a Democrat in a majority Republican General Assembly. Evans was one of the leaders in establishing the Zell Miller Grant for tech education, and she pushed to lower the grade-point requirement for the HOPE Grant for technical college students.
Those changes have helped Georgians pursue further career education goals but not enough of them, according to Evans, who says the state is still "pricing students out of an education."
Georgia is hardly alone in that regard; one of the more infamous economic trends in American culture over the last few decades is the rate at which the rise in college costs has soared past general inflation rates. But it's especially damaging in a low-income state like Georgia, where access to higher ed is a challenge for most citizens even in flush times.
The rising tuition costs and the 2008 economic downturn were among the factors that forced the state to pull back on the HOPE program and pay most, rather than all, of qualifying students' tuition except in the case of the very top scholars.
But for whatever reasons and whatever the combination of factors, making higher education, either academic or technical, accessible to fewer students is hardly in the best interest of Georgia and its citizens - any of them.
Evans plans to introduce a bill in the next legislative session that would provide scholarships or stipends aside from, and perhaps even in addition to, the HOPE and other aid and grant programs. One possible source of funding, she said, is the surplus in the state's reserve fund, which in 2014 was $347 million more than the required 50 percent of the previous fiscal year's receipts.
"Tuition is increasing very rapidly," Evans said, "and because the HOPE scholarship covers only a percentage of revenue based on lottery revenue, it's covering less and less of tuition for students."
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, who chairs the higher education subcommittee in Appropriations, pointed out that HOPE is still one of the most generous scholarship and grant programs in the country, funding between 79-85 percent of tuition. Yet for many families -- and probably a higher percentage of them in Georgia than in most other states -- the other 15-21 percent is simply prohibitive, however generous the rest of the fund. Too many bright young people are denied access to postsecondary educational opportunities who meet every important qualification except the ability to pay.