ATLANTA — The state’s newest public scholarship was intended to benefit all of Georgia’s high-achieving students, but a newspaper’s analysis published Sunday shows that it tends to favor those who live in affluent Atlanta suburbs who are more likely to afford college without the state’s financial help.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis found that students from low-income homes and those who are first in their families to attend college are the least likely to receive the Zell Miller Scholarship, which provides full tuition to college-bound students.
It also found that metro Atlanta students from seven ZIP codes – including the suburbs of Alpharetta, Marietta and Lawrenceville – received $8 million in Zell Miller Scholarships. That’s about 15 percent of the money that was awarded by January. And all the 15 high schools graduating the most Zell Miller scholars are within about 45 miles of Atlanta.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who created the scholarship last year amid increased demand for the popular HOPE scholarship, defended the program. His spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor will do what it takes “to give every hardworking student a chance to go to college.”
Legislators created the scholarship to counter the diminished payouts of Georgia’s popular HOPE scholarship, which is available to more students but pays less toward tuition. It’s funded by the Georgia Lottery through tickets sold statewide.
Zell Miller scholars must graduate high school as the valedictorian or salutatorian, or they must achieve at least a 3.7 grade point average and a 1200 on the SAT’s math and reading sections. They must maintain a 3.3 GPA while in college. Some 11,600 Zell Miller scholars receive payments.
Some budget analysts aren’t surprised by the distribution of the Zell Miller scholars because metro Atlanta boasts some of the state’s top high schools. Others say it’s a sign that school districts in other parts of the state need to improve.
But critics said the state is more likely to benefit from helping students from all areas of the state, particularly those who could not otherwise afford college.
State Sen. George Hooks said residents of Dooley, Macon and Quitman counties spent nearly $15 million on lottery tickets in 2010 but only a few students at local high schools received the award.
“When I look over the data of the counties I represent in rural Georgia, we get very little back from the Georgia Lottery,” said Hooks, a Democrat. “The poorer areas are buying disproportionate amounts of lottery tickets and getting very little in return.”
Georgia Tech sophomore Graham Goldberg is a Zell Miller scholar. The average high school identified 18 students eligible for the scholarship, but Goldberg’s alma mater – Dunwoody High School – had 161. Goldberg said he recognizes the flaws in the program.
“I don’t think it’s fair that I get the same scholarship as someone whose family makes less money,” Goldberg told the newspaper. “But knowing I would get this money helped me decide to come here.”