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Students told to brace for HOPE changes
Program likely to face cuts next year
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Gov.-elect Nathan Deal says dramatic changes could be ahead for Georgia's HOPE Scholarship program to help counter an alarming shortfall.

Legislators say the program is growing faster than the lottery money that funds it.

The Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees HOPE, projects a roughly $244 million shortfall for this fiscal year and estimates the shortfall for fiscal year 2012 at $317 million.

Jill Rayner, director of financial aid for North Georgia College & State University, said college staff have been warning students about possible cuts to come.

"If families are relying on HOPE to help students pay for bills and haven't applied for federal financial aid, this may be the year to do it," Rayner said.

Some changes in the way the scholarship is administered already are being made. The book allowance is being cut in half this July, except for students who are eligible for the federal Pell grant program, and it likely will be axed altogether.

Another change could be the elimination of the grant for students to take remedial programs in college, Deal said.

The HOPE Scholarship has become a mainstay on campuses like NGCSU. About 83 percent of the freshman class are eligible for the program, Rayner said.

The scholarship provides full tuition and money for books and fees for students who maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.

Along with funding college, some students say HOPE provides other benefits as well.

Johnson High School freshman Ashley Hogan said the program gives her the incentive to get good grades in school.

The Georgia Lottery has funded the program since the 1990s, but lawmakers say it can no longer keep pace with increasing student enrollment.

Rayner said North Georgia officials have been discussing the issue for several years. There have been changes to the program over time, she added, such as raising academic standards for students who can qualify.

"They've made tweaks to the program throughout its whole history. Now we've gotten to the point that these small tweaks they've made will not make HOPE sustainable,"
Rayner said.

North Georgia employees are letting students and their families know about the situation with presentations and information in their newsletters. Rayner said they also are telling parents there are other options for paying for education. Financial aid forms will be available in January for fall semester, she said.

"That's another option they can use to compensate for whatever decisions are made by the legislature," Rayner said.

Staff at Gainesville State College also plan to get the word out to students, financial aid director Susan Smith said. About 2,500 of the school's 9,000 students use HOPE.

"No changes have been made yet but as soon as they do, we'll start notifying students," Smith said.

While the scholarship does have reserves, they are projected to shrink from about $1 billion earlier this year to about $317 million by the end of 2012.

Deal has called for bipartisan support to help preserve the program. Legislative leaders are expected to make decisions about the program at the next General Assembly session.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.