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Private schools, students push to keep grant in budget
Brenau University sophomore Geneve Lopez measures a vessel Monday during a beginning ceramics class. Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed cutting a grant for private college students out of next year’s budget. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

At 40 years old, Maureen Hewag doesn’t look like the typical first-year student studying on a Monday afternoon in Brenau University’s student center.

But she is among many nontraditional students following the progress of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s state budget through the legislation process.

In an economic downturn that continues to send shock waves through education budgets statewide, Perdue has proposed cutting grants awarded to Georgia students enrolled at private in-state colleges.

The Tuition Equalization Grant has seen several cuts in the last few years, dwindling from $1,200 in 2008 to $950 in 2009 and $775 in 2010. Now the grant could disappear entirely, and only those private college students who maintain a B average would be eligible to receive extra funds through the HOPE scholarship. Representatives from the governor’s office said this would save the state about $16 million.

"It makes good sense from a policy perspective," said Chris Schrimpf on Perdue’s behalf. "Gov. Perdue put forward what he thinks is the best policy for the state. We’ll see where it ends up."

But for Hewag, who studies nursing and, like many nontraditional students, cannot qualify for HOPE, the grant is a small but comforting form of aid in times when she has trouble scraping together funds to purchase text books.

"I’m a mother going back to school," Hewag said. "Right now, I’m not getting financial aid. I’m in a very, very uncomfortable position."

Brenau senior Shelden Shuman said the grant was somewhat of a safety net at times when she did not qualify for the HOPE scholarship. Without it, students may have more incentive to keep their grades up, she said.

"On the one hand I feel that there does need to be some incentive to do well in school and be rewarded for that," she said. "But on the other hand, private schools are a lot more expensive than public schools."

Controversy over the proposed cut has prompted backlash from students, alumni and college representatives. Brenau University administrators sent students an e-mail this month to urge them to contact their legislators.

Along with statewide response, their efforts seemed to work. The House passed the budget with the grant in tact, but it still faces review in the Senate.

"A lot of these families, especially in this economy, are economically strapped," Brenau President Ed Schrader said. "If you take away from that grant they may not be able to go to school."

The grant is paid for by state tax dollars and used as an incentive for students to attend independent colleges and universities, according to a lobbyist for the Georgia Foundation for Independent Colleges.

"(Legislators) know the more students that go to private colleges in Georgia actually benefits the state because it reduces the amount of tax money the state needs to educate students in public colleges," Jet Toney said.

If funds for the grant are cut, Schrader said it would disproportionately affect veterans and adult students like Hewag who may have been out of school too long to qualify for HOPE scholarships.

"If you remove (the grant), you’re removing all of the support for those groups of people," he said.

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