In the wake of the Great Recession, governments everywhere have tried to slash spending. Unfortunately, education has not been spared from these cuts. In the past four years alone, the state contribution to Georgia Tech has been reduced by 90 million dollars or approximately 31%. Colleges across Georgia have had to cope with shrinking funds, which have led to pay freezes, reduction in faculty, decrease in admissions, fewer degree programs and course offerings, and even a controversial maneuver to merge eight colleges in the University System of Georgia into four. In addition to these measures, universities turn to their students to help make up for lost funds by raising the cost of tuition and adding new mandatory fees.
The inflation of tuition and extra fees has placed increased pressure on the HOPE scholarship, Georgia’s state scholarship program, which until recently has covered full tuition and fees for students who maintain a 3.0 GPA. About 30% of students in the University System of Georgia receive this scholarship. From its inception in 1993, HOPE has awarded $6.4 billion dollars to help almost 1.5 million Georgians pay for college without requiring any public funds. A portion of the revenue from the Georgia Lottery has fully sustained the program to this point but now risks falling short of the needed expenses for its continuation. The state legislature’s latest response to this problem was the passage of HB 326, a bill that dramatically cuts the coverage of the HOPE scholarship.
HB 326, which was signed into law one year ago, broke HOPE into a two-tiered system. In order to receive the same benefits as before, students now must maintain a 3.7 GPA throughout high school and a 3.3 GPA in college. This has been renamed the Zell Miller Scholarship. What is still known as the HOPE scholarship no longer covers full tuition, mandatory fees, or book stipends. To receive this, students still must maintain a 3.0 GPA, and in addition, they must score a 1200 or higher on the math and reading sections of the SAT. This requirement represents a significant barrier to entry, considering that 1200 is two standard deviations above the average score of Georgia high school graduates: 978. The changes to the HOPE scholarship program introduce new problems for students and campuses throughout Georgia.
Adverse effects on campus diversity
All of the five research universities in the University System of Georgia have initiatives to increase diversity on their campuses, but the new SAT requirement makes it even harder for low-income students and minorities to pay for higher education. While 21.5% of white students meet the new SAT requirements, only 2.7% of black students and 5.7% of Mexican-Americans students have high enough scores to be eligible for HOPE. Along with race and ethnicity, family income level is a strong indicator of SAT scores. Only 5.4% of students from households that earn less than $40,000/year meet the new SAT requirement. At the same time, 30.8% of students from households making more than $140,000/year meet the requirement. The new requirements for HOPE create new challenges in keeping our college classrooms diverse.
Hardships on working students
Information released about the changes to HOPE led people to believe that tuition coverage would only be cut by 10%; however, the disconnect between how students are charged for attending school and how HOPE reimburses expenses greatly increase the amount of money that students have to pay out of pocket. Now HOPE covers only a percentage of tuition based on the tuition from the previous year to insulate itself from new tuition hikes. This year HOPE covered 90% of what it would cost for last year’s tuition, but this percentage will most likely decrease in the coming years. In order for HOPE recipients to get the 90% tuition coverage, they must take more hours than what is considered full-time. Even though full-time student status is given to those taking 12 or more credit hours per semester, the changes to HOPE mandate that students must take at least 15 credit hours to receive the maximum available benefits. This means that the amount that the school charges a student and the amount that HOPE covers can be drastically different. For example, a student is charged the same amount from the school whether they are taking 7 or 17 hours, but HOPE only assists with less then half of the cost for a student taking 7 hours. Similarly, a full-time student taking 12 hours would only have 80% of tuition covered.
Students with HOPE who have to work their way through school to offset living expenses face a dilemma. Working while taking 15 hours of coursework, in order to get the maximum benefits from HOPE, is an extremely difficult task, especially at the more rigorous schools. Students in this situation are likely to fall behind with their course work and will lose hope if their GPA drops below a 3.0. On the other hand, if they decide to take half of the hours to have time for their job, they will have to pay over $1,500 more each semester.
Students interested in research, teaching assistantships, or internships face a similar problem. Although schools encourage these programs, HOPE scholarship creates mixed incentives for participation. These programs are usually offered for audit or credit hours. Audit hours count towards full-time student status, but they are not taken into account for the 15 hours that HOPE requires. Although audit hours typically mean that a student is paid for participation, students must weigh potentially having to pay around $700 more in tuition to what they would get paid in the program. Receiving credit hours for participation, which are normally counted as free electives, creates other problems. With the new hard cut-off line for the number of hours that HOPE covers, students must be more judicious with what classes they take so they don’t use more hours than they need for their degree. Free electives fill up fast, especially for students that have transferred or changed majors. Often times, gaining credit hours for these programs can be a disincentive to participation.
While the new 15-hour requirement places extra hardships on part-time students, it is completely reasonable for HOPE to award money based on how many classes a student is taking. Typically tuition pricing has only two levels determined by whether a student is taking more than 6 hours or not. A more scalar pricing model that better matches how HOPE determines award amount could potentially solve this problem.
Grades over learning
The increased attention to GPA associated with the HOPE/Zell Miller scholarship runs the risk of further shifting students’ attitudes from learning-centric to grade-centric, which can have disastrous effects in an educational environment. This attitude can result in focusing on completion more than understanding, short-term cramming rather than long-term learning, and even cheating. The shift starts long before students reach college. High school students have intense pressure to keep a 3.7 GPA to be eligible for the Zell Miller scholarship or a 3.0 for HOPE. In some cases, goals for higher grades will motivate students to put forth more effort in their classes, but this may also cause students to avoid challenging courses that may hurt their GPA. Educators may also feel compelled to inflate grades in order to help their students go to college. While every measurement of educational merit has shortcomings, raising the GPA requirement to maintain a full-tuition scholarship exacerbates the existing problem.
Were the cuts to HOPE avoidable?
The point of the HOPE scholarship was to improve the educational system in Georgia by rewarding achievement in school, making it easier for students that can succeed in college go to college, and giving more incentives for top students to stay in the state. The recent cuts to HOPE made sacrifices in all of these areas, although some argue that this was the only way to save HOPE for the future. It is clear that changes had to be made to HOPE, but it appears that the state legislature and governor fell short in the effort required to preserve as much of the HOPE Scholarship program as possible.
Our elected officials took little time to examine or debate HB 326, a bill with tremendous consequences to students and Georgia’s future. While the financial state of HOPE has been a known for years, the bill to overhaul the scholarship was rushed through the legislature, leaving no time for public discourse. The plan to cut HOPE scholarship was unveiled by Nathan Deal on February 22nd of last year, and by March 15th—21 days later—the bill had been passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law by the governor. Students barely knew what was happening and had little time to organize against it. The changes to HOPE were effective the very next semester and applied to both current and future recipients. Students who had worked hard to maintain a high GPA found out that their scholarship was being taken away because they didn’t meet requirements in high school that didn’t even exist when they were there.
The quick passage of HB 326 makes it unconvincing that the legislature spent enough time analyzing alternatives. When HOPE was started, a $66,000 cap was placed on household income for students to receive the scholarship. An alternative proposal suggests that instating a $140,000 income cap would save as much money as the recent cuts. Another plan introduced the idea of having casinos in Georgia that could help raise more money for HOPE much like the lottery does. And in the case where public funds could be used to subsidize the HOPE scholarship, no thought was put into the potential return on investment. If college graduates make on average 50% more in their lifetime, helping more kids attend college may pay for itself in future income tax revenue.
Maybe the cuts were unavoidable, but how the government dealt with HB 326 gives the public little reassurance that they took every measure to protect HOPE. Students call for the government to reexamine the changes to HOPE and search for better solutions. These cuts are not just hitting students hard; they are also changing the learning environment in our campuses. We call for educators to join us in this struggle as it poses great consequences to the future of higher education in Georgia.