In the wake of HOPE Scholarship changes last year, volunteers have banded together to make their voices heard.
And they’re asking others to join in to raise the decibel level.
“Save the HOPE,” a nonprofit organization created by Georgia business and community leaders, is pushing for full funding of the state’s HOPE Scholarship.
“Now that the HOPE is down to 87 percent funding and is soon to be at less than 50 percent (projected by 2014), it became obvious to me that it was just good business and good for our business for Georgia to have a fully funded HOPE Scholarship program,” said Bud Carter, co-founder of Save the HOPE and senior chairman for Vistage International in Atlanta.
Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that reduced the HOPE Scholarship from full coverage down to 90 percent of the 2011 tuition rates for those high school students who have a 3.0 GPA.
It also eliminated money for books and fees and gave students just one opportunity to regain the scholarship if they lost it due to falling grades.
“By decreasing the amount of HOPE for tuition and setting a percentage number, we were both adapting to the changed economic environment as well as keeping the spirit of the program,” said state House Speaker David Ralston in an August 2011 interview with The Times.
Full tuition is still covered under the Zell Miller Scholarship for students who graduate high school with at least a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 on the SAT. They would need to maintain a 3.3 GPA in college to keep it.
But 70 percent of those Zell Miller Scholars attend either the University of Georgia or the Georgia Institute of Technology, and more students qualified for that scholarship than expected, adding more strain to the lottery fund, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The change in the way the scholarship is divvied out was intended to help offset the revenues the Georgia Lottery lost.
“Upon his inauguration, Gov. Deal was faced with a $300 million shortfall in lottery-funded programs,” said Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “The choice he made was not between reform and the status quo, but between reform and bankruptcy. Instead, the governor and the General Assembly crafted a legislation that ensured HOPE and pre-K long into the future — and maintains some of the most generous benefits in the nation.”
Between 2009 and 2011, the Georgia Lottery Corp. sales declined by more than $71 million.
And Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, said the state would need more than $100 million by 2014 to keep the HOPE Scholarship from dipping even further, according to the AJC.
Lottery officials say this year’s sales and profits are “strong,” and they are committed to doing their best to keep up with growing demands.
“The recent world-record $656 million Mega Millions jackpot led the Georgia Lottery to its highest sales week ever and generated $25.2 million in profits for education in Georgia,” said Tandi Reddick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Lottery. “... However, it remains challenging to keep pace with the growing demands on the HOPE Scholarship and pre-K programs.”
But those leading the Save the HOPE effort believe it’s essential to the continued economic growth of the state that the scholarship cover full tuition.
“We’ve gotten a lot of the industry that moved here because of the impact of the HOPE Scholarship,” Carter said. “If the HOPE Scholarship is diminished, then what’s the likely consequence?”
He said keeping students in Georgia is essential to helping that economic growth.
“It may cost us our best and brightest kids going to school outside of the state,” Carter said. “And people tend to work in the state where they graduated.”
State leaders, however, still see Georgia’s HOPE program as one of the most generous in the nation.
To receive full tuition, Florida students need a 3.5 GPA and a 1270 on the SAT. South Carolina requires a 3.5 GPA and a 1200 on the SAT to get the maximum of $6,700. Tennessee students can get up to $4,000 a year in similar systems. Save the HOPE organizers say there are ways to overcome some of the financial woes, but suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.
“There have been a few people that have brought suggestions to help support this issue, but it doesn’t seem like they’re even willing to entertain it,” said Jason Hennessey, co-founder of Save the HOPE and CEO of EverSpark Interactive in Atlanta.
One of those suggestions, Hennessey said, was building a gaming hub in Atlanta.
The idea behind the facility is a hotel, theater, upscale restaurants and a game floor with 7,500 video lottery terminals. The facility would be in Norcross.
Developers say it could generate around $350 million each year for the HOPE program.
“If they don’t like the proposal that is there now then give us something better, but let’s do something,” said Carter. “Kicking the can down the street does nothing.”
Mayfield said the governor considers education as a top priority and will address the HOPE program per the yearly revenue.
“Gov. Deal will climb any mountain, cross any desert, do whatever it takes when it comes to finding ways to give every hard-working student a chance to go to college,” Mayfield said. “The governor wants all high school students who want to go to college to be college-ready and have a plan to finance their education. He has never been quiet about the importance he places on education.”
Save the HOPE has launched a website, www.savethehope.org, where people can sign an online petition urging those who are capable of making decisions for the HOPE program to “take action.”
“The bottom line is doing nothing shouldn’t be an option,” Carter said. “We just need to get about the task of addressing the issue and finding a solution.”