Gov. Nathan Deal is recommending the Tuition Equalization Grants be cut next year, reducing the total expenditure 8 percent to $26 million. At the same time, he's calling for 10 percent reductions to the average HOPE scholarship and cutting $189 million, or 3 percent, from the University System of Georgia.
The usual argument for the grants, which about 36,500 students get, is that encouraging them to go to private schools saves taxpayers the cost of educating them in one of the state's 35 public colleges and universities. Because taxpayers subsidize students at public college with $6,300 each in the current fiscal year, the grants of $775 apiece amount to a savings of more than eight times the cost.
However, an analysis by the Department of Audits and Accounts released last week questions whether taxpayers really get a bargain.
"While cost may not be the deciding factor for all students, it is reasonable to believe that it would influence the decision for some percentage of students," the auditors wrote. "In order for the TEG to influence these students, though, the award amount has to be substantial enough to make an impact on the costs."
In other words, is a grant of $700 -- the new amount in Deal's budget -- enough to convince someone to go to a private college instead of a public one?
Considering 53 percent of students who receive the grants come from families with incomes below $40,000, even $700 might be a welcomed benefit.
On the other hand, the auditors found that the annual tuition at the 37 private schools attended ranged from $6,000 to $39,000. The largest bloc of students getting the grants attend Georgia Military College, which costs $13,000 a year. A comparable public college would cost students just $2,600, according to the report.
The auditors refer to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003-04 in which a majority of those attending public schools cited affordability as the main factor in selecting a school, but that was the least-important factor mentioned by most private-school students.
So, the grants, despite their size, aren't likely to be swaying many students away from public colleges. But then, it doesn't take many. If fewer than 4,000 students chose a private school over a public one, taxpayers would break even. If more did, the savings would grow for taxpayers.
The grants have been around since 1971, and a majority of surrounding states offer something similar. When the HOPE scholarship began in 1993, private-school students could receive a $3,500 grant if they had a 3.0 grade-point average. Last year, that HOPE grant rose to $4,000, but Deal is recommending it be cut 10 percent to $3,600.
Even if taxpayers don't save money, the grants have a purpose, according to Kelly McCutcheon, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
"Our policy should focus on enhancing our students' opportunity to receive a high quality education, not on who owns the buildings," he said.