Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Our best HOPE may be rethinking a cherished program

Legislators studying the “preservation of the HOPE scholarship” have spent a lot more time talking about casinos than colleges . That being the case, it’s an open question what “preservation” means.

Or whether “preservation” is even the right goal.

Five years ago, HOPE recipients at Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia could expect all of their tuition to be paid by lottery funds. Today it’s about 77 percent, except for those who qualify for the newer Zell Miller Scholarship and still have their tuition fully covered — although not fees and a stipend for books, as HOPE originally provided.

Just returning to full tuition for all HOPE scholars could quickly eat up the program’s estimated share of $280 million in revenues the state would get if casinos were legalized. And that’s before any further tuition hikes.

If so, a restoration of HOPE to its former glory would seem to be off the table, and “preservation” could simply mean reducing the value of the scholarship more slowly over time. That makes for a rather less decent proposal for legalizing casinos.

Lawmakers could try to squeeze more money out of casinos with a higher tax rate, but they’d probably have to double or even triple the take to restore “full HOPE” for very long. Even then, they’d merely be penciling in a future date at which we had the same conversation about the program we’ve been having since 2011.

So if restoration isn’t feasible and preservation isn’t likely, lawmakers will need to find another goal for HOPE. How about a transformation?

The original premise of full tuition for all qualifying students, at all public colleges, in all degree programs, may not be the right one anymore. My friend Charlie Harper recently raised this question at an event for his think tank, Policy BEST. I think it’s worth examining.

The deal has already been changed in our technical colleges, where the HOPE Grant covers all tuition only for certain “high demand” programs. Is there room for such consideration among our four-year colleges?

There’s also the question of whether we get the best bang for our buck by covering tuition for students from the get-go, only to watch as roughly half of HOPE scholars lose their eligibility after just one year. In fact, the best indicator of whether students will graduate may be whether they have HOPE after their first year.

The University System of Georgia reports six-year graduation rates for first-time freshmen entering its colleges between 1999 and 2008. Interestingly, students who entered college with HOPE from 2003 to 2008 were no more likely to graduate than those didn’t have it until after their first year. What’s more, whether they started with HOPE or not, those students who were eligible for the scholarship after their freshman year graduated at a 76 percent rate. Among all others who started college with them, only 25 percent graduated.

So maybe, as longtime Georgia political activist Virginia Galloway suggested at a legislative hearing in Savannah last month , students could pay their first year’s tuition and then get a refund if they’re still eligible for HOPE. The state could then pay as they go, as long as they remain eligible.

The opportunity regarding HOPE may not lie in finding new tax revenues to pump into it. Rather, this may be our chance to make the program as smart as the students who depend on it.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.