By Terry Lewis
ALBANY — For the past 22 years, Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship has been envied nationwide and promoted as a shining jewel of the state’s educational system. More than 1.7 million Georgia students have received more than $8 billion in tuition assistance from the program, providing college opportunities to those who otherwise may have never obtained a college degree. But in many respects, former Gov. Zell Miller’s baby has been a victim of its own success.
According to a recent report from the Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships, expansion of programs and overwhelming public demand are straining the system despite, growing contributions from the Georgia Lottery.
The report states, “If recent trends continue, the funds available for the HOPE Scholarship for 3.0 GPA students — the very students HOPE was created for more than 20 years ago — will be out of money by 2028.”
Among the report’s key findings:
• HOPE suffered an 89 percent drop in full-tuition scholarships after 2011 reforms, forcing thousands of students out of the program.
• For the 2016 school year, HOPE will cover only 71 to 88 percent of tuition costs, depending on the college or university.
• About 62 percent of Georgia’s college students have loans, and average student debt is about $26,518.
• Technical colleges were hit especially hard. Throughout the Technical College System of Georgia, the number of HOPE Grants is down 69 percent from the number awarded before 2011 reforms.
“This analysis confirms suspicions that Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship is in serious jeopardy,”
said Chip Lake, president of the Committee to Preserve HOPE Scholarships.
“Despite a tidal wave of cash from the Georgia Lottery, demand for tuition assistance among Georgia families is overtaking the ability to fund the scholarships as intended.”
The report asserts in 2018, funds for the general HOPE Scholarships will start to decline. By 2022, funds for full-tuition Zell Miller Scholarships will exceed HOPE. And by 2028, HOPE could be in the red, despite an expanding lottery.
The report notes that last month the lottery pumped a record $1 billion into the HOPE fund, but even if the lottery continues the anticipated 2.5 percent growth it has seen over the past five years, it won’t be enough, at least not for the thousands of average students for whom the HOPE Scholarship was originally intended.
“In 2018, the HOPE funds designated for those students will start going down,” the report contends. “By as early as 2028, those funds will be gone.”
In the beginning, HOPE had 42,000 scholarship applications. By the second year, HOPE awards doubled as the lottery money poured in. By 2010, HOPE was supporting tuition for a quarter of a million students.
But as the money flowed in, benefits, programs and costs also increased — including funding of the state’s Pre-K programs and allowances for student fees and books. By 2011, HOPE was looking at a deficit, and the fees and books benefit was eliminated.
The report said, “By 2011, it was clear that the dream of full college tuition for everyone was in trouble. There were 238,489 students on HOPE. The costs were $679 million, or $2,847.09 per student. When a deficit of $243 million was forecast for that year, newly elected Gov. Nathan Deal warned of tough choices ahead.
“HOPE, which had largely taken on ‘birthright’ status in Georgia, could no longer be promised to future generations of students,”
the committee's report said.
Academic standards for obtaining and keeping HOPE were raised, forcing many out of the program. The number receiving full-time scholarships to colleges and universities fell 89 percent from 102,311 in 2010-11 to 10,809 the next year, when most of the reforms went into place, the report said.
In addition, HOPE awards would no longer rise automatically to cover tuition increases.
“For the 2016 school year, HOPE will cover 71 to 88 percent of tuition costs, depending on the college or university. Georgia Tech students on HOPE receive the smallest amount of help — 71 percent of their semester’s $4,906 tuition bill, or about $1,422 shy of the full costs,” report author Nancy Badertscher wrote.
“The decline would have been even more severe if the lottery hadn’t just had a banner year and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia hadn’t made the decision to leave tuition rates the same as 2015-16.”
This fall, HOPE will cover about 82 percent of tuition each semester for full-time, in-state students at Georgia State University, leaving the students and their families to find ways to make up about $784 a semester to cover tuition. At UGA, HOPE pays about 75 percent of tuition, leaving HOPE scholars with a tuition bill of $1,187.
With in-state tuition costs pushing 7.5 percent per year (soaring well above the nation’s current inflation rate of 0.8 percent) and lottery revenues projected to rise just 2.5 percent annually, it is clear that eventually the program will hit a wall and begin operating in the red. That year is projected to be 2028.
The Herald had an interview scheduled with Albany State University Financial Aid Director Stephanie Lawrence set for early Tuesday afternoon, but that meeting was canceled.