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Democrats aim for HOPE changes
Some want current recipients grandfathered into plan, but Republicans say talks are closed
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State Democrats are rallying behind a plan that would give certain HOPE scholars a grace period on this fall's funding cuts.

Current scholarship students and high school seniors were expecting full HOPE funding, and those students don't have enough time to make up the difference, they said during a statewide listening tour at several college campuses.

But Republicans say the HOPE conversation is closed.
"That's not something that's currently being discussed, in the governor's office or the leadership among the House and the Senate, to revisit something that we spent a lot of time to work on and closed out almost three weeks ago," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who introduced the legislation as one of Gov. Nathan Deal's floor leaders.

In March, the legislature passed House Bill 326, which cut HOPE funding to 90 percent of tuition rates for students who hold a 3.0 grade-point average. The bill retained 100 percent funding for those who graduate with a 3.7 GPA and score a 1,200 on the SAT. Students would be required to maintain a 3.3 in college to keep the full award.

The Democrats' plan calls for additional funds to be pulled from the Georgia Lottery reserve. There will be $680 million in the reserves by the end of 2011, which is $240 million higher than the required amount, said Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, one of the lawmakers on the campus tour.

That's more than enough to provide a yearlong grace period and "grandfather in" current students, he said, adding that the Georgia Student Finance Corp. has the ability to set its HOPE funding at 100 percent for the next year.

"These kids are really having the rug pulled out from under them with no time to plan," Carter said.

Jordan Bearden, 18 and a student at Gainesville State College in Oakwood, said he's still figuring out how to deal with the HOPE cuts. He's not working this semester and can take the time to keep his grades up. But he hopes to find a job this summer and save enough money to make up the difference in the fall.

"For right now, I'm just trying to keep my grade-point average as high as I can," he said. "My classes aren't the easiest, but I'm just seeing if I can find extra time to study to keep my grades up so I can at least still keep 90 percent of HOPE, if not all of it."

Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, said she worries students who can't make up for the cuts will be forced to drop out of school, which ultimately will hurt the bottom line for many colleges.

"It's just not good for anybody to have to make changes this late in the game," she said.

But the money simply isn't there to ease the transition for current HOPE students, Collins said.

The $180 million change would nullify a majority of the cuts in HB 326 and ruin the viability of the plan, he said.

"We did it from a conservative perspective, which we thought would be in the best interest of the program long-term," Collins said.

As the 2011 legislative session draws to a close this week, the financial aid office at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega is advising students and families about the changes while reminding them the legislation could change. The college has hosted 18 sessions, attended by more than 2,000 people, on the HOPE changes, financial aid director Jill Rayner said.

But some students won't realize the full force of the cuts until their bills arrive, she added.

"It's sort of like a tornado drill. Some people participate and some people don't," she said. "We're trying to heed off the storm."