In 1993 Georgia broke new ground by making a promise to high school students. The HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship assured high-achieving graduates full tuition support at any Georgia public institution and partial support at any Georgia private college or university.
Eighteen years later, this ground-breaking program is in trouble. Revenues from the Georgia Lottery can no longer cover the costs of HOPE. The General Assembly faces the daunting challenge of changing a popular program in order to rescue it.
As president of one of the state’s private colleges, I am keenly aware of the difference the scholarship makes in the lives of students. Even though our students’ awards do not pay their full tuition cost, HOPE makes a real difference to those struggling to attend the college of their choice. Changing the scholarship concerns them just as it does all who benefit from the program.
There are many contributing factors to the trouble HOPE faces. The number of high school graduates has boomed as Georgia’s population has grown. As a result, more students are eligible for the scholarship, thus increasing the cost of the program.
A greater problem, however, is that as state appropriations supporting public higher education have been cut over the last few years, public colleges and universities have been forced to raise tuition sharply to cover that loss of revenue. As tuition has risen, so has the size of the scholarships, since they currently cover tuition in its entirety.
With such increases in the size of HOPE awards going to greater numbers of students, it is no surprise that revenues have failed to keep up with expenses. This cycle must be broken and, in order to do this, most observers now agree that the amount of the scholarship must be decoupled from tuition cost.
The Georgia Independent Colleges Association has put forward such a proposal to create a simple, three-tiered flat-rate scholarship for students attending the degree-granting institutions of their choice. The tiers reflect the major distinctions among institutions without regard to the source of their funding: Tier one awards would go to students attending four-year (or two-year residential) colleges and universities; tier two to students at two-year colleges; and tier three to students at technical colleges.
Such a move would make HOPE financially stable and sustainable. The General Assembly would, for the first time, have control over the scholarship’s award amount, ensuring that expenditures would not exceed available funds.
This approach would be easily understood by students and parents alike. Families would know the award amount soon enough in the spring to plan accordingly.
The proposal also honors the intent of HOPE -- helping outstanding pupils attend the college which best suits their needs. It would create parity for all participating students by granting the same award by the type of institution and not its source of funding.
Some do not believe such equality is needed, claiming that students who attend private institutions are wealthier and need no help. In addition to confusing the purpose of the scholarship -- to reward individual academic merit, not financial need -- this stance is unsupported by the facts. A higher percentage of Georgia private college students attending a four-year institution qualify for the federal PELL Grant, which helps the neediest of students, and more of their families make less than $60,000 per year than their four-year counterparts at public institutions.
Some others have advocated reducing the number of students receiving the aid by raising qualification standards. At best, that strategy is a temporary fix and it runs in opposition to the scholarship’s purpose.
The mission of HOPE is to encourage Georgia’s outstanding students to remain in the Peach State -- during and after college -- to raise the educational level of our citizens and to power our economic engine. To achieve that goal, increasing access, or at least sustaining it at current levels, not the reverse, should be our aim.
A flat-rate approach provides a better way -- a simple, fair, transparent and sustainable solution. By adopting it, the General Assembly can assure help for Georgia’s current outstanding students while safeguarding for future generations the promise made in 1993.