Legislature pledges HOPE scholarship here to stay

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As a parent of four children, two of whom received HOPE scholarships in college and two in high school, I’ve seen firsthand the impact the HOPE scholarship program has on Georgia families.

For some, it’s the catalyst that propels them to work harder in high school and graduate with higher academic achievement. For others, it makes a college education financially affordable.

HOPE is at a crossroads due to the program’s popularity outpacing lottery revenues.

The nearer-term struggling economy and farther-term changing workforce demands have driven record college enrollments in recent years. Georgia’s 35 universities and colleges enrolled six percent more students in 2010.

Program costs will surpass lottery revenues this year, dipping into the reserves $300 million. Without changes, “checks” for future scholarships will bounce.

As the Speaker Pro Tem of the House, parents often ask me this very real question: Will HOPE be around for my kids? The answer is a resounding Yes.

Our goal is simple: to preserve and strengthen HOPE for tomorrow’s students and generations to come. This will not be achieved without tough decisions, though.

The first HOPE scholarship was awarded in the Fall of 1993. The original program included numerous restrictions, primarily due to unknowns such as how much revenue the lottery would generate and how many students would participate.

Since then, HOPE’s scope and scale expanded and more than 1.2 million students have been awarded a HOPE scholarship or grant. The lottery-funded Pre-K program has enrolled more than 1 million students, including 53 percent of today’s four-year-olds. Pre-K offers more than six hours of daily instruction at a $4,200 cost per child.

Changes to HOPE since 1993 include: expansion to four college years; $150 semester book allowances; mandatory fees payments averaging $420 yearly; additional chances to re-gain HOPE; expansion to include older college and home-schooled students; and increases in scholarship grants to $4,000 for private college students.

Because HOPE is most known for college scholarships, some may not realize its impact on workforce development needs. The HOPE Grant program pays tuition for Georgians seeking a technical certificate or diploma at 26 technical colleges. Enrollment increased 25 percent in 2010 alone.

Students from all across the socio-economic spectrum have been trained to compete in today’s job market through the HOPE Grant. The young man that recently passed the GED sits side-by-side in night classes with a 47-year-old single mother. In fact, over 50 percent of HOPE scholarship and grant recipients have family yearly incomes less than $40,000.

HOPE has increased the number of students who have a college education, while also keeping our highest achievers in-state. One study estimates the college attendance rate among all Georgia 18- to 19-year olds increased by as much as 8 percentage points due to HOPE. More students than ever scoring in the top 10 percent on the SAT choose an in-state college.

Keeping the best and brightest here in Georgia develops a well-prepared future workforce spurring economic development. Many businesses have touted HOPE as an incentive to recruit talent to Georgia. HOPE rounds out our state’s reputation as a great play to live, work, raise a family - and gain an excellent education.

This week, Gov. Nathan Deal outlined proposed changes to the HOPE program and with strong bipartisan support. HOPE programs will be maintained and adjusted yearly according to lottery revenues.

Next year, merit-based HOPE scholarship students attending public and private colleges as well as technical college students will receive 90 percent of 2011 tuition amounts. HOPE Scholarship will continue to require a 3.0 GPA.

The plan also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship - offering full tuition to Georgia’s public colleges and universities - for our best students who graduate with a minimum 3.7 GPA and 1200 on the SAT or ACT equivalent. Books, fees and remedial college classes will no longer be covered.

Gov. Miller branded our state through HOPE, transforming the promise of what it means to be a Georgian. We’ll carry it forward with carefully considered changes to preserve HOPE for a brighter future.

Representative Jan Jones represents the citizens of District 46. She was elected into the House of Representatives in 2002, and currently serves as Speaker Pro Tem of the Georgia House of Representatives.