Laura Newton won't be eligible for Georgia's HOPE scholarship program for another year, but she's already looking at it as a way to pay for college.
"I'm going to try to work to make the grade or the requirements, because I think it really would help a lot," the 16-year-old junior at Greenbrier High School said. "I've always planned on going to college."
And with two younger sisters, the HOPE scholarship program could alleviate some of the financial strain on Laura's family.
The HOPE (Helping Outstanding Students Educationally) program recently marked its fifth year.
In five years, Gov. Zell Miller's program has granted $580 million worth of scholarships to 319,000 Georgia students.
The program -- funded by the Georgia Lottery -- provides scholarships to eligible students attending public and private colleges or universities as well as public technical institutes in Georgia.
In Columbia County, the number of students taking advantage of the program has increased over the years.
For example, only 209 Columbia County students received HOPE scholarships for a total of $132,308 in 1993 when the program began. In 1997, 775 students used HOPE to attend college at a cost of nearly $1.4 million.
Steve Tompkins, director of communications for the Georgia Student Finance Commission, said use of the scholarship program has increased statewide.
"This was seen as an opportunity," Mr. Tompkins said of the program. "It was free money to go to college. All you had to do was get a B average. It was a seed that was planted five years ago, and it has just germinated into a program that parents and students see as affording them an opportunity that they didn't have before."
Local guidance counselors agree that the program has made college more feasible for many students.
"Prior to HOPE, it was real tough being a guidance counselor because the truth was marvelous students ... couldn't get any scholarships," said Mae Guinn, a counselor at Lakeside High School. "They're competing for a very small pool."
Suzy Channell, a guidance counselor at Greenbrier High School, said she has ninth-graders approaching her about HOPE.
The program, she said, has not only helped keep good students in Georgia but has motivated them to become better students.
"It's a concern from the day they enter high school -- they start asking `What do I do to get the HOPE?,"' Ms. Channell said. "And every time they make a bad grade in a class they come up and check their (grade point average) to make sure they're qualified for the HOPE."