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Families brace for HOPE cuts
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ATLANTA - For Christopher McGee, getting the HOPE scholarship meant he could afford Georgia State University.

But state lawmakers are eyeing cuts to the cash-strapped scholarship program that has paid for more than 1 million Georgians to get a higher education - meaning McGee and other students across the state may have to pay thousands of dollars more for college. The 19-year-old from College Park said he'll likely increase the hours he works at his part-time job as a file clerk at an Atlanta law firm and decrease his class load to help make up the difference.

"It just shows that in the state of Georgia, the priorities are in the wrong place," said McGee, a communications major. "There are other ways to save money and cut back so that we can get the money for our education."

Although an official plan hasn't been released, lawmakers and state officials have hinted at possible cuts: no longer having HOPE cover all of tuition, no more paying for books and fees, and no more going to college for free. Lawmakers also are looking at cutting the state's free prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds, either by limiting how many hours they attend during the day or the number of days they are in school each year.

Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to announce his plan Tuesday for scaling back such programs, which are funded by the state's lottery. But until lawmakers decide on the changes, which could take months, families in the state are left in limbo.

It's the first major overhaul to the 20-year-old program that promised Georgia children if they got a B average in high school, they could go to college on the lottery's dime.

State officials say the changes are necessary to save the scholarship program, which is expected to spend all of its reserves by next year. While lottery proceeds have continued to grow, they haven't been able to keep pace with rising tuition and student enrollment.

"A lot of kids can't go to school without it," said Martica Jenkins of Alpharetta, who has a daughter at the University of Georgia on HOPE and another child in high school. "I think it would just be a tragedy if the HOPE scholarship wasn't available."

Jenkins said she and her husband have started saving money in case HOPE isn't available when their son graduates high school in three years.

The lottery program pays for college scholarships, grants for technical schools and prekindergarten. Students attending Georgia's private colleges get a $4,000-per-year scholarship from HOPE, but that likely will be cut back.

Scholarships for public school attendees would no longer rise as tuition does, dropping to about 90 percent of their current value. About a third of students enrolled in public colleges and universities in the state use HOPE.

Lawmakers also are considering capping awards at 127 credit hours, or four full-time years of college.

Georgia high school graduates can get the HOPE - which pays for tuition, books and some fees - if they graduate with a B average and keep a 3.0 grade point average in college.

This year, for the first time in nearly a decade, officials had to tap the HOPE's reserves, setting off a series of triggers designed to scale back the spending once the program began operating in the red. This fall, the $350-per-year book stipend for students on HOPE will be cut in half, and next year HOPE will no longer cover student fees.

For parents like Karen Hallacy, a Marietta resident with a son graduating high school this year, the changes to HOPE could mean he doesn't stay in Georgia for college as he had planned.

"HOPE is definitely a factor in his decision," said Hallacy, whose son has also applied to colleges in Michigan and Tennessee.