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HOPE for the best and the brightest
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Since its inception in 1993, the HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship has awarded more than $6.3 billion to over 1.4 million Georgia students in what many consider to be the most successful merit based scholarship program in the nation.

Under the leadership of then Gov. Zell Miller, the HOPE scholarship — funded by  lottery revenues — was intended to address the then growing problem of our best and brightest students’ leaving Georgia to pursue educational opportunities elsewhere.  Many referred to this as the “brain drain.”

The plan worked and it worked well.

The “brain drain” slowed considerably as our best and brightest students stayed at home. As a result, the academic quality of our schools, particularly our flagship university, the University of Georgia, rose to new heights. Increased admission standards, tougher curriculums and higher enrollment followed.

As lottery revenues increased so did the scope of the HOPE scholarship and the other lottery supported programs — the HOPE Grant for technical schools and the pre-K program.

Quickly, the HOPE scholarship went from covering two years of tuition to four years.  Mandatory lab fees and a $100 per quarter book allowance were added. The family income eligibility cap was abolished and students were given the chance to regain scholarships they had lost by improving their grades.

In April of 2003, the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP) ranked Georgia number one among the 50 states in academic-based student financial aid because of the HOPE scholarship for the sixth year in a row.

However, since 2004, rising tuition costs, high enrollments and a leveling of lottery revenues have required tweaks to be made to the HOPE scholarship program to assure its sustainability.

Last year, facing a potential crisis where revenues could no longer keep up with expenditures, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Republican-controlled legislature addressed the long term stability of the HOPE scholarship by passing HB 326, the Enduring HOPE bill.

In keeping with the original intent of keeping the best and brightest in our state, HB 326 maintained the HOPE scholarship for students who graduate from high school with a 3.0 GPA and keep it through college, but adjusting the award amount based on lottery revenue.

By decoupling the scholarship from tuition rates and utilizing a “factor rate” based on the previous year’s HOPE award, we are assured of meeting obligations without bankrupting this successful program.

HB 326 also made other adjustments including creating the Zell Mill Scholarship for the most exceptional students and preserved the HOPE Grant and pre-K programs. Stricter academic requirements have also been implemented, including increasing requirements of HOPE grant recipients to maintain a 3.0 GPA.

Also in the FY 2012 budget, the state provided $20 million in seed funding for the Low Interest Loan program to provide financially-needy students with funding for college costs.

Last week, Gov. Deal announced a new needs-based college scholarship, the REACH scholarship.  This privately funded program was created to help those who struggle to pay for college.

Like a good physician who treats a sick patient, we have stabilized HOPE. We have identified the problems and have addressed them. Now we will wait for outcomes from our treatments while continuing to monitor the program.

Some in the minority party choose to take the “sky is falling” approach by calling for spending more money in the short term that would certainly bankrupt the program.

Perhaps the most appalling suggestion by the minority party is to abandon the original intent of HOPE — to keep the best and the brightest in our state — by imposing a family income eligibility cap. This is not fair to the student nor is it fair to our state.

By taking a page right out of the Obama administration’s playbook of trying to create class warfare, the minority party wants to penalize students who have worked hard and performed well academically by changing the merit based HOPE scholarship to a needs based entitlement.

We need all of the best and brightest to stay in our state and become productive members of our society.  They will be our state’s leaders; they will be owners of large and small businesses that bring jobs to our communities; they will be the leaders that educate future generations of Georgians; they will be future state legislators, building a prosperous future on new laws; they will be the doctors, inventors, and philanthropists that build each city and county throughout our state creating clean, safe communities that we can raise our children in.  HOPE scholars are the shining “hope” of our state’s future. 
Sen. Buddy Carter can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building (CLOB) Room 301-A, Atlanta, GA 30334. His Capitol office number is (404) 656-5109.