Is there any hope for Georgia's HOPE scholarship program?
Judging from last week's joint meeting of the State House and Senate committees on higher education, there are few reasons to be optimistic about the future of this program, which uses lottery profits to pay college tuition for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
Testimony at the meeting made it clear that when the General Assembly convenes next January, the HOPE financial crisis is going to be at the top of a long list of problems.
The popular scholarship program is burning through its reserves as expenditures outstrip the profits generated by the Georgia Lottery. HOPE expenditures will exceed lottery funds by $243 million this fiscal year and $317 million next year, according to projections from the Georgia Student Finance Commission.
There are only two realistic choices for lawmakers: reduce the number of students who receive a HOPE scholarship or cut the amount of money each student gets.
Sides are already starting to form in this debate. Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, proposed that the HOPE scholarship once again become a needs-based source of college assistance. That means only students from low-income and middle-income families could apply for it.
"I think it's a lasting solution if we want to save HOPE, and it's in line with the original purpose of the scholarship, which was to make a college education more affordable for Georgia students who couldn't otherwise afford it," Brown said.
The idea of imposing such a limit is not supported by the remaining candidates for governor.
If needs-based standards are a political nonstarter, another alternative would be to require that students achieve a minimum score on the SAT before they can apply for a scholarship.
Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed this kind of SAT standard back in 2003, when the legislature first grappled with the issue of depleted reserve funds. Perdue suggested then that HOPE scholarship applicants be required to have a minimum score of 950 or 1,000 on the SAT exam, but that proposal was quickly shot down by lawmakers.
With the HOPE program in such dire financial straits, a minimum SAT score requirement will probably be discussed again.
An SAT standard would set the stage for at least two kinds of civil wars among legislators. You would have lawmakers from rural districts arguing that a minimum SAT score requirement would favor students from the more affluent suburban school districts.
There would be another war along racial lines, with legislators from black districts contending that the use of a "culturally biased" SAT test to determine eligibility would tilt the field in favor of students from predominantly white school districts.
The HOPE issue may ultimately touch upon another sensitive question with enormous implications for Georgia: are there too many students going to college in the first place?
Testimony at last week's legislative hearing revealed that 46 percent of students who obtain HOPE scholarships lose them within their first year at college because they fail to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. More than 60 percent of HOPE recipients lose the scholarship at some point in their college career for that same reason.
"I thought the HOPE scholarship was supposed to be a reward for outstanding students," said Rep. Amos Amerson, R-Dahlonega, a retired college instructor. "If two-thirds of the HOPE scholarships are lost, those aren't really outstanding students. They are average students."
Figures from the Board of Regents also show that more than 40 percent of the students admitted to Georgia's public colleges fail to graduate within a six-year period.
While University System officials boast of their ever-growing increases in enrollment — there are now more than 300,000 students at the state's public colleges — those numbers make the uncomfortable point that a lot of people are being admitted who are never going to get a degree.
Should we keep spending more money, and raising tuition to higher levels, to try to educate larger numbers of students who are never going to finish college? Or does it make more sense to focus our dwindling financial resources on a smaller pool of students who have a more realistic chance of actually getting a degree?
Those are hard questions that need to be raised with the candidates for governor.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.