Georgia lawmakers once promised a free postsecondary education to every high school student with a B average. Today, that’s an increasingly tough promise to keep, according to state accountants. The Georgia Student Finance Commission recently reported that the state’s beloved HOPE scholarship would have a $500 million shortfall in the next two years. For the first time, the state must draw on the unrestricted reserve funds to supplement the difference between costs and available lottery funds. By 2012, the reserves will be significantly depleted. The lottery-funded Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship provides full tuition to Georgia public colleges with only one requirement: maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout college. No income caps. No stringent academic requirements. No minimum SAT score. And it worked well for the next seventeen years, until now. So, why the shortfall?
The scholarship just became too popular. When the HOPE scholarship started in 1993, the income cap was set at $66,000, but lawmakers eliminated the ceiling in 1995. The Georgia legislature was riding high on the economy, like the rest of the country, and overspent itself. No one envisioned the skyrocketing tuition, the explosion of college students, or the recession. Lottery funds simply can’t keep up with the costs.
I’m also not convinced that the HOPE scholarship has a fair funding system. Research shows that lower-income, nonwhite households are more likely to purchase the lottery tickets that fund the system. Meanwhile, the wealthier, suburban white students often receive the benefits of the scholarship. The HOPE scholarship hasn’t really changed who has gone to college as much as it has changed where. Enrollment gains mostly come from students who would have gone out of state for college. Now these students take advantage of free tuition at the state’s flagship institutions like the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech.
Lawmakers must balance both fiscal and equity concerns. Raise taxes? Not likely in a Republican-controlled legislature. Increasing the income cap would lose votes with affluent families who have come to use HOPE as an informal entitlement. Lawmakers have suggested increasing the GPA requirements and instituting a minimum SAT requirement, which tend to discriminate against low-income and minority students.
Here’s a compromise: Georgia already provides a $2000 scholarship limit per semester for students at private colleges. Extend that benefit to the students above the cap, but still guarantee full tuition for those students below the cap. Maybe, when the economy improves, it’ll be possible to eliminate the income cap just as in 1995. But for now, Georgia just can’t afford HOPE for every student.
Both Roy Barnes and Nathan Deal have already pandered to affluent voters by publicly opposing an income cap. It’s too bad that neither gubernatorial candidate will really stand up for the middle and lower-class students in the state, but it’s not altogether surprising, given that Senator Robert Brown’s (D-Macon) suggested $150,000 income cap lacks political support. In the meantime, lawmakers will have to reevaluate the real intention of HOPE: a promise for middle and lower income students or a watered-down entitlement for Georgia’s affluent students?
–Padmini Jambulapati, Education Sector intern