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Of all the ideas state government has produced in the last generation, none in Georgia may be more popular than the HOPE Scholarship.
The HOPE began in 1993 as the brainchild of then-Gov. Zell Miller, creating a state-sponsored lottery to fund pre-kindergarten statewide and offer paid college tuition and other expenses to qualified Georgia students who attend in-state public colleges.
The program has been wildly successful, helping thousands of Georgia students earn a college degree without incurring massive debt, all while sparing taxpayers.
But it seems the HOPE may be a victim of the slow recovery from the economic recession that continues to hit government budgets at all levels.
Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission that oversees HOPE, recently announced that lottery revenues have dropped while expenses continue to increase, leading to possible shortfalls in the near future of $243 million to $317 million. The GSFC already has dipped into its reserve fund to make up the difference, but it's not enough as long as lottery receipts keep falling.
At the same time, tuition costs have skyrocketed, meaning more funds are being used by students currently enrolled than lottery revenues can replace. And that doesn't even begin to address the influx of new students who will be seeking HOPE money in the future.
The Georgia Lottery Corp. has devised new games and continues to advertise aggressively to keep players putting their dollars into the pot. For a while, lottery revenues stayed steady even as the recession took a toll on jobs and businesses.
But now, fewer people are finding the cash to play. And really, the HOPE's deficit problems may be more about how much money is going out than how much is coming in.
The program’s popularity has made it indispensable to Georgia students. Many who might otherwise find alternative means to fund college tuition have taken advantage of the scholarship, which also provides book and fee stipends. Technical school students have been able to learn a trade with the help of HOPE money, keeping enrollment rising at local tech schools.
In fact, the standards to qualify for HOPE have never been particularly stringent. Students must graduate from high school with a B average and choose to attend a Georgia public college. That's pretty much it. With so few hoops to jump through, many have taken advantage.
Unfortunately, in order to keep the HOPE afloat in the near and distant future, state officials clearly are going to have to raise that bar by limiting who can qualify for the HOPE and what it will pay for. It appears to be the only way to keep the program solvent going forward.
One problem is that many students who apply for and use HOPE funds do not complete a college degree. Thus, the money used for their truncated education could have been spent on a technical school education, or perhaps another student. That drains some of the available funds.
In order to keep the scholarship available to students in tough times, state legislators are considering a number of revisions that would close the deficit gap, including:
n Ending book and fee stipends entirely.
n Putting an income cap on students who are eligible for HOPE to keep it available for lower- and middle-income students who do not have alternate means of paying for college.
n Converting the HOPE to a set grant amount rather than tying it to ever-rising tuition rates.
n Raising the academic requirements to ensure that the best students are spending the funds to progress toward a degree.
n Cutting back the amount spent on pre-K teachers and programs.
None of these options are attractive, and ideally all would only be short term in nature until the economy recovers, costs are controlled and lottery funds increase. But in the meantime, preserving the program is vital if well-qualified Georgia students are to keep their academic dreams alive.
Already, the HOPE has boosted enrollment at state colleges and universities who have recruited strong students who might have otherwise left the state to pursue their educations. That is money raised and spent in our state and ultimately circulated back into Georgia's economy. The more we can provide to keep this vital program afloat, the more our state will benefit for a well-educated future work force.
Legislators should begin the process by trimming at the edges to save HOPE funds. They should not consider diverting lottery funds to anything but HOPE, as has been discussed in the recent past.
In addition, new sources of revenue could be sought to supplement what the lottery brings in. Attorney General Thurbert Baker, in his bid for governor, proposed a statewide bingo game that would, in theory, add to the HOPE funds. It's hard to say if such a game would add to the lottery or merely divert some of the same funds, but it's worth looking into.
Whatever the plan, the success story of HOPE can't be allowed to end without a full, bipartisan effort to save it. Here is a government-sponsored initiative that provides a tangible benefit to state residents through voluntary funding and recycles that money back into the state economy.
That's a winning formula that we can't let fade away.