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Deal's HOPE plan would raise grade standards
Local school leaders call scholarship changes tough but fair
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Georgia's high school and college students are evaluating their grades and finances after Gov. Nathan Deal announced changes to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship Tuesday.

Deal introduced legislation that would continue to award full tuition scholarships to students who earn a 3.7 grade-point average and a 26 ACT score or 1200 math and verbal SAT score. These students would be called Zell Miller scholars, which is named after the former governor who created HOPE in 1993.

Students with a 3.0 GPA will receive 90 percent of the tuition rate for fiscal year 2011, saving the state about $300 million, Deal said.

"I call this vintage Nathan Deal. It's a very pragmatic solution to an incredibly challenging situation," said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield. "I'm glad to see that our best and brightest will continue to receive a scholarship at 100 percent because there is an inarguable connection between HOPE and keeping our best and brightest in Georgia for college and work."

The tiered approach encourages students to earn higher grades, said Clarence Jones, a guidance counselor at East Hall High School.

"It gives the students incentive to do well if they get more out of it," he said. "I think it makes sense to raise the bar for a full scholarship. The higher the GPA, the more apt a student is to complete college."

The legislation also eliminates funding for books, fees and remedial classes and caps eligible payments at 127 credit hours. The changes will affect students in the fall, catching some graduating seniors off guard as they plan for freshman year finances.

"I guess it's a hard cut, but it's fair and gives advantage to students who have worked the hardest," said Stephen Pope, a senior at East Hall who plans to attend college in Georgia.

"HOPE is a big reason for me to stay in state because it does help with tuition."

Pope and Victoria Webb, an East Hall junior who plans to graduate early, have the GPA and test scores it takes to secure a full scholarship, but they know their friends will be affected.

"Throughout high school, we were told that if we maintain a certain GPA, we will get HOPE, but now there's not much seniors can do," Webb said. "One reason I'm choosing to attend Auburn is because tuition stays at a flat rate, even if you take more than 12 credit hours."

Current college students will also face the changes, as based on their high school GPA and test scores, not recent college transcripts.

"If the proposal factored in current enrollees, we still wouldn't have enough money for HOPE," said Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for Deal. "This will help preserve the scholarship for years to come."

Many students assumed they would be grandfathered in Tuesday and expressed frustration on Facebook and Twitter. Josh Delaney, Student Government Association president at the University of Georgia, and Corey Boone, Student Government Associationspresident at Georgia Tech, were "disappointed" about the announcement.

"We're disappointed with the financial uncoupling of HOPE and tuition," Delaney said. "A flat rate is not flexible, and tuition goes up every year, as expected with the rising cost of services. This means the scholarship will help less and less every year, and we're concerned about the long-term effects this will have."

For example, a HOPE student who receives the 90 percent rate would pay $353 at UGA to cover a semester of tuition based on today's rates. Additionally, the student must pay more than $400 in mandatory fees per semester for services such as transportation, health care and student activities.

"We're also disappointed that current students are not grandfathered in. A lot of students came here based on the expectation that they would receive HOPE if they held up their end of the bargain," Delaney said. "They shouldn't be penalized by an economic downturn or budgetary issues."

Deal proposed spending about $10 million to offer low-interest loans around 1 percent for students who can't maintain a 3.0. The loan would be forgiven for those who teach math or science in Georgia's public schools, he said.

Lawmakers passed a similar scholarship program in 2008 but never allocated any money to it. Delaney and Boone will continue to push for alternative sources of funding and a tiered funding approach for the state's institutions.

"We haven't seen that in the governor's proposal, and it begs the question, ‘Are we doing this as a quick fix instead of solving a complex situation?'" Delaney said.

"It doesn't accurately tier a four-year college and a research university, so we're still trying to be proactive and work with our legislators to find sustainable solutions."

The proposed legislation also plans for the future, requiring students to take more rigorous high school courses to earn the scholarship. Students graduating after May 1, 2015, must receive credit from two advanced courses, such as advanced math, advanced science, advanced foreign language, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes.

The May 1, 2016, requirements bump the credit expectation up to three advanced courses, and students must take four advanced courses in 2017 to earn the scholarship.

"It's going to be tough. Some of our students depend on full tuition," said Kay Holleman, a Gainesville High School guidance counselor. "We've been telling seniors and parents from the beginning of the year that there were going to be changes, but we didn't know what they were."

The legislation also cuts bonuses for some Georgia Lottery employees and moves the state's pre-kindergarten program from a six-and-a-half hour day to a four-hour day.

"These are major changes for our students all the way down to pre-kindergarten, where they get a foundation," Holleman said. "This scholarship has helped our colleges blossom as students stayed in the state, but I think the changes will really affect our universities. Some students won't be able to go to school."

The timing will likely be the biggest struggle for students and parents, said Megan Johnson, a senior at Gainesville High School.

"It's interesting that they waited until now to tell us," said Johnson, who has a 3.7 GPA. "It's too late to take the SAT again, and I bet some people would have tried harder."

Johnson, who was accepted to UGA through early admission, is now reevaluating her finances.

"I thought I had my scholarships figured out, but now I need to regroup and find money for food, housing and extra tuition," she said. "My mom is a single parent, so that's tough. HOPE used to cover you if you worked hard enough, but now that's in question."

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