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Posted: February 15, 2011 7:30 p.m.

Giddens: Keeping HOPE

The anguished call came in the night three Christmases ago, a voice mail message left by the son with whom I share a name.

"I’ve lost hope," is what his mother and I heard.

We were celebrating Christmas with my parents in Thomasville, but he had left earlier that day and returned to Augusta for work.

We replayed the message. What had happened? Had we missed the signs of depression? Was he considering hurting himself? Was he OK????

We called him back and were reassured. He was fine, all was well, mostly.

He had lost HOPE, as in scholarship, one of the great benefits of living in Georgia.

Tharon had never been an honor roll kind of kid. We attended way too many parental conferences for all the wrong reasons in middle school and there was even an in-school suspension. Fortunately, as often happens with teen boys, the stupid gene that had flared into dominance faded into the background as the realization struck in his sophomore year that there probably would be life after high school, but that grades needed raising so he could go to college.

He worked at it, and he worked hard, raising his GPA to a point that he qualified for HOPE.

In college, he held a job and went to class, paying his car loan and earning his own gas money and walkabout money. He had HOPE, but like a lot of kids, he lost it at the end of his freshman year. A tough semester had caught up with him, and he had no backlog of A’s to tide him over. He had a job and a place to live (Chez Giddens), but now he had to come up with money for books and tuition.

Tharon took out some loans and worked harder than ever. Three semesters later, he had HOPE back, and kept it until he graduated last year with a business degree.

Smart guy.

He’s got the degree, but he also has three student loans and about $10,000 in debt to repay for that year without HOPE.

Through no fault of their own, a lot of Georgia students are facing an even worse debt load than what Tharon’s paying back, as the state government considers cutting back the HOPE scholarship program.

The Georgia Lottery is not providing the funds needed to pay for HOPE. Proposals on the table to make up the funding deficits range from a new tax to gutting the program. One possibility is raising the Grade Point Average requirement to something like 3.77, which would make the scholarship out of reach for many of the students most in need for its help, and another would reimpose an income limitation on recipients. It’s a hard call, and there are no winners here.

HOPE benefits all kids in Georgia, but it has been a boon to the middle class, kids who work for what they get, who don’t qualify for help through Pell Grants and who otherwise would have to pay for college on their own.

One textbook can cost $100 or more, and buying used isn’t the option it once was, as the key to unlock online content won’t transfer to a second owner. Tuition, even at the lower-cost state schools like Georgia Perimeter, is about $3,000 a year, then add in the cost of books and multiply by four. It costs about three times that to attend the University of Georgia.

It’s Tharon’s birthday today. He’s 24 and has a degree in finance. Resumes are out, but the job market is tough for newbies. He’s tending bar, catering and doing other duties to get by, but he’s got hope.

Would Tharon have made it through college if there had been no HOPE money available to him?

Probably, but with a massive debt load and the equivalent to a luxury car payment each month to start his professional life.

His younger brother, Michael, didn’t earn a HOPE scholarship. He, too, is working and going to classes, but he’s having to fund his education entirely through student loans.

His mother and I have no doubts that he’ll follow through and earn his degree. He’s just under the B average that would make him eligible for a free ride, but it’s hard to earn the A’s to make up for a few too many C’s. It could happen, though.

There’s always HOPE.

For now, anyway.

Tharon Giddens is editor of The Covington News. Reach him at (678) 750-5011 or at tgiddens@covnews.com.

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