ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers should give last year's changes to the HOPE scholarship time to work before considering any new changes to the program, Gov. Nathan Deal said Tuesday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Deal said the cuts passed by the GOP-led Legislature last year need more time to take effect before any other changes are made. Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Jason Carter of Decatur, have called for an overhaul of the program to restore full scholarships for all students who receive an award.
Deal said the state should focus more on improving high schools so that graduates are ready for college — not how to hand out scholarships to more graduates. Last year, lawmakers cut the HOPE scholarship for all but the state's highest performing students. Critics say that means full scholarships are going mostly to students in wealthy suburban school districts and not the poor students who need the money the most.
"We should all be working on trying to bring up the quality of those students in terms of their academic achievement at the high school level, in terms of their ability to make higher SAT scores, not trying to bring other high achievers down or to penalize those who are our high achievers," Deal said.
The state has a goal of adding 250,000 more college graduates by 2020, which will mean making sure every student is ready for some type of post-secondary education. Deal said that's why he launched several need-based programs to help students afford college, including a low-interest loan and a scholarship for low-income students.
He added that HOPE is still among the most generous scholarships in the country, providing more than 80 percent of tuition for hundreds of thousands of students to attend public and private colleges in the state.
"That's something we should not lose sight of," Deal said. "We are far ahead of almost every other state, if not all states, in that regard."
But Carter and other Democrats say the requirements to get the top awards— called the Zell Miller Scholarship after the former governor who launched the lottery — are unfair to poor students. The full ride requires a 3.7 GPA and 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT.
Carter has proposed legislation limiting the household income of HOPE recipients and giving Zell Miller Scholarships to the top 3 percent of every high school's graduating class, no matter what they scored on a college-entrance exam. He also wants to remove the GPA requirement put in place last year for students who receive HOPE money to attend a technical college.
"I think you have deserving kids all over this state, who are the best and brightest in their communities and who are first in their class or fifth in their class who deserve to go to college but who might not do that well on the SAT for a host of reasons," Carter said.
Carter has voiced concerns that Deal's plan will spend down the HOPE's reserve account and result in scholarships paying very little of the cost of a college education for most students.
Projections from the Georgia Student Finance Commission show that college students will be paying more out of pocket than they receive in HOPE money by 2015.
The projections show that a typical student at the University of Georgia would see a 38 percent reduction in the lottery-funded award between now and mid-2015. By then, the student would have to pay $2,732 in expenses every semester. That student's HOPE scholarship would cover the remaining $2,461 in costs.
Deal and other GOP leaders in the state have largely ignored the Democrats' attempts to make more changes to the scholarship, saying now is the time for patience. The Democrats' plan would drive the best and brightest students to out-of-state colleges and bankrupt the 19-year-old program, Deal said.
Deal said he believes growth in the demand for HOPE will slow as the state's economy recovers and fewer workers are unemployed and seeking retraining at state colleges. And needy students have options aside from HOPE, like the federally funded Pell Grant and a new need-based scholarship, Deal said.
"Traditionally, parents saved for their children's college education," Deal said. "And I think we have seen some of those savings disappear and government be expected to make up the difference."
State lawmakers made massive cuts to the HOPE program last year, including decoupling it from tuition so that the award amounts don't increase indefinitely and cutting books and fees from the scholarships. They also enacted a 3.0 GPA requirement for the technical college grant, which has cut thousands of students out of the HOPE program.
Lawmakers made cuts to HOPE, along with the lottery-funded prekindergarten program, because lottery proceeds haven't kept pace with rising tuition and skyrocketing enrollment. Officials said the programs were set to go broke if changes weren't made.
"We were looking at changes that would have long-term sustainability for the HOPE program, not something that would simply be judged on a six-month period of time," Deal said about last year's overhaul of the scholarship. "I think we need to give it more time to make that long-range judgment as to what these changes have brought about."