ATLANTA - Private college students in Georgia are finding out that HOPE is no longer a sure thing.
The number of private college students receiving HOPE scholarships has plummeted since lawmakers decided to make them get good grades like their public school counterparts.
While the number of public college students receiving lottery-funded HOPE scholarships has jumped nearly 27 percent since the 1995-96 school year - providing $103 million worth of tuition, books and fee money this year alone - the count of private school scholars has dipped 39.5 percent, state figures show.
That's largely because of a rule change, approved in 1996, that forces Georgians attending private colleges to meet the same B average requirements as students at public colleges and universities.
"In a way, I'm glad to hear that," said state Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys, who sponsored legislation to boost standards for private college HOPE scholars. "This shows that was the right thing to do.
"It puts the private colleges on a more even footing with public colleges, it doesn't give them an unfair advantage."
Shortly after the inception of the HOPE scholarship program in 1993, lawmakers like Smith began complaining that public school students were at a disadvantage.
While Georgians attending one of the state's 34 public universities and colleges had to maintain a B average to obtain and retain a HOPE scholarship, private school students got a check just for showing up.
Gov. Zell Miller, the father of HOPE, grew up in the shadows of private Young Harris College, where he and his father taught. He contends state funding is appropriate because it relieves crowding at public colleges.
HOPE provides free tuition, fees and a book allowance to public college students, while those attending private schools receive a $3,000 a year grant.
Smith's legislation to force new requirements on private college HOPE scholars failed, but Miller agreed to the B average standard anyway.
That has brought a drastic drop in scholarships at some schools, according to statistics released by the program.
At Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, the number of HOPE scholars fell from 4,049 in 1995-96 to 1,039 this year. At Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, the count declined from 1,851 to 936. At the Art Institute of Atlanta, HOPE scholarships dropped from 377 to 61. At Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, they went from 1,841 to 657.
Several highly regarded private schools showed the same pattern, although the fall wasn't as dramatic. For instance, the number of HOPE scholars at Emory University in Atlanta declined from 1,316 to 983. At Mercer University in Macon, the count went from 3,316 to 2,050. At Atlanta's Morehouse College, HOPE scholarships fell from 516 to 396, and at Augusta's Paine College, from 551 to 361.
The largest segment of HOPE scholars at Georgia colleges are freshmen who qualify by earning B averages as high schoolers. Often, once students reach college, they can't maintain the grades needed to keep the scholarship.
At public colleges, the number of freshmen HOPE scholars, those who qualified with a B average in high school, climbed from 28,615 during the 1995-96 school year to 30,778 this year. At private colleges, the count dropped from 13,035 to 8,074.
The fallout from the change hasn't been particularly financially damaging for schools for two reasons: the amount of the scholarships was increased from $1,500 to $3,000 for a full-time, full-year student when the B average rule was implemented, and the requirement is being phased in.
Because of that, many juniors and seniors at private colleges, who received HOPE money under the old system, are still getting $1,500 a year. In two years, such grants will disappear.
Gerri Bogan, financial aid director at Paine College, said her school hasn't seen much of a difference since the B average rule was implemented. While HOPE scholars have slipped 34 percent at Paine, the decline in money from such scholarships is only about $100,000.
However, Georgia Military College has seen a more than $2 million dip in HOPE scholarship money.
Glenn Newsome, who runs the HOPE program, said the figures aren't surprising.
"Any time you raise standards, you're going to have a smaller number of students (qualify)," Newsome said.
He doesn't expect as large a drop in 2000, when a new HOPE rule will require students to have a B average in high school core curriculum classes - such as those in math, science and English - to get a scholarship.
"There will be fewer HOPE scholars, but I don't think it will be as dramatic as 39 percent," he said.
Georgia State University's Applied Research Center and the Council for School Performance, which provides annual reports on lottery-funded school programs, is predicting a 25 percent dropoff in freshman HOPE scholarships in 2000.
Gary Henry, director of the Applied Research Center and the council, said the private college figures simply show many of the students who had earlier received HOPEs weren't meeting the B average requirement of public schools.
"These were students who weren't getting in at (the University of) Georgia and Georgia Tech," he said.
The percentage of students receiving HOPEs at public schools is increasing, making competition to get into those colleges and universities more fierce, he said.
At the same time, top students have to wonder if it's worth going into debt, or having their parents pay out big money, to attend private colleges if a HOPE can provide a free public education.
"For private colleges, it's going to be rough sledding for a while," Henry said.