Originally created 09/30/03

Panel debates HOPE changes



ATHENS, Ga. - A 20-member committee delving into the future of the Georgia HOPE Scholarship is two months away from recommending to legislators how the award can survive.

Funded by lottery ticket sales, HOPE pays tuition, fees and $300 in books for in-state students with at least a 3.0 grade-point average. Students must have graduated from a Georgia high school to qualify.

But the cost of college and the number of students enrolling are outpacing lottery revenue. Possible solutions are aplenty. Among the suggestions committee members are considering is a uniform standard of judging grades for HOPE eligibility.

At some high schools, a B is equivalent to a score of 80 on a 100-point scale. At other schools, students must score 85 to earn a B.

The committee also is considering a possible minimum SAT score for HOPE, limiting the number of semesters a student can have the scholarship, and eliminating the books and fees allowance.

Setting a statewide standard for what constitutes a B average could save $34.3 million a year, while cutting off HOPE to high-school students with SAT scores less than 1,000 could save $44.3 million annually, according to the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

"We're trying to keep it as much as we can like it was set out in the beginning," said state Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, the committee's co-chairwoman. "We need to take the necessary steps to take OPE) out of any immediate danger."

Since HOPE was launched by Gov. Zell Miller a decade ago, more than $2 billion has gone to more than 700,000 college students statewide, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

Of roughly 25,000 undergraduates attending UGA, about 16,500 have the scholarship. In five years, Ms. McBee said, the scholarship will be in jeopardy, running at an annual deficit of about $250 million.

"Because of the population growth in the state, the number of students are growing. That makes a greater demand on funds," she said. "By 2008, we think the amount of money available and the students will come together.

"I don't think it's in a critical stage yet," Ms. McBee added. "Some of these recommendations could be put in force immediately. And then other steps could be taken from there."

In December, the committee - made up of lawmakers, higher-education administrators, university officials, college students and parents - will report their findings to legislators.

State Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Douglasville, the panel's co-chairman, says the process has been wait-and-see.

"What we're trying to do, and we're working hard at it, is exercise a little bit of restraint and let the facts come out," he said. "We're trying to develop a consensus on the committee."

Changes to HOPE will be implemented slowly, in phases, Mr. Hamrick said.

"Anything we do will not be drastic," he said.

State Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, a committee member, said several of the ideas appeal to him, but not one that calls for standardizing the amount of the HOPE scholarship.

That suggestion calls for limiting the award to a flat $3,000 per year. The scholarship now pays tuition, regardless of the amount. Tuition at UGA is $3,208 for the 2003-04 school year. Fees cost an additional $870.

"We may have to look at that sometime in the future, but we'll have to be a whole lot worse off with hope before we go to that," Mr. Williams said.

A recent poll of Georgia parents conducted by the Vinson Institute indicates that the most widely supported idea is to restrict hope to four years, which had 74 percent support.

The limit now is 126 credit hours, regardless of how many years that takes.

As for the potential changes, Ms. Mcbee said it's likely more than one will be instituted.

"I do think there are things we can do that will still maintain the integrity of the scholarship," she said. "We need to reward students who study hard and come into college to keep it."

The final two HOPE committee meetings are set for 10 a.m. Oct. 22 and Nov. 13 in the Capitol.