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Kemp to use $5M in virus aid to help students finish college
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Governor-Elect Brian Kemps speaks to a crowd during a Georgians First pre-inaguration celebration on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019 at the Gainesville Civic Center. - photo by Austin Steele

Some juniors and seniors at Georgia’s public universities and colleges are in line for a little financial boost to help them reach their degree.

Gov. Brian Kemp announced Thursday in his State of the State speech that he would use $5 million in federal coronavirus relief that he controls to provide small grants to help students with unmet financial need pay their college bills.

“These hardworking Georgians have nearly crossed the finish line of their higher education journey, and I believe the least we can do is ensure financial hardship at the hands of COVID-19 does not stand in the way of achieving their dreams,” Kemp said in the speech, saying the money would provide a boost for up to 10,000 students.

Because it’s federal money, the Republican governor won’t need legislative approval to spend the money. Other details remain fuzzy. Kemp’s office didn’t answer questions on Friday about who exactly would be eligible, or for how much money.

Completion grants have gotten a lot of attention in academic circles in recent years, with Atlanta’s Georgia State University a notable pioneer. Getting more students to finish college has also been a major push by outgoing University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley.

Georgia State started issuing Panther Retention Grants in 2011, after noting that many students dropped out of school just short of their degree after running out of financial aid and loans. Students who stop taking classes, even if they intend to only take a break for a semester, are much less likely to finish their degrees. And students who borrow money but don’t earn a degree are often those most burdened by student loan payments, studies have found.

Although Georgia provided more than $720 million in HOPE scholarships in the year ended June 30, those grants don’t cover the financial need of many students. Jennifer Lee, a higher education policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, called Kemp’s plan a “great idea,” saying she hoped it could become a permanent part of the state budget.

“My understanding is that this is one-time federal funds. Gov. Kemp described it as a pilot,” Lee said. “But if implemented well, I am extremely confident this idea will be hugely successful and that lawmakers will hopefully decide to invest some sustainable state dollars to this strategy.”

In 2018, Georgia State issued more than 2,000 grants, ranging from $300 to $2,000. The university says that from 2011 through 2018, 86% of more than 12,000 grant recipients went on to graduate, most within two semesters.

Students don’t have to apply, with the money going to those who can’t register for the next semester because of unpaid bills, have unmet financial need, and have at least a “C” average. That success story, combined with similar experiences at other schools, have led dozens of other colleges nationwide to offer emergency grants.

In 2016-2017, Georgia State spent $1.8 million on the program.

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