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Need-based tuition assistance can help Georgia reach its goals

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Oct. 21, 2016 - 7:22 AM

Georgia leaders want to add 250,000 college graduates by 2025 as part of its official Complete College Georgia program. It’s hard to see how that happens in just eight years without a course correction.

State leaders set that goal after concluding that 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require some kind of postsecondary education by 2020. It’s hard not to feel like we’re already running more than a little behind.

So how do we get there from here? First we need to understand where the opportunity is, a point which was missed in a recent Newnan Times-Herald piece titled, “Be careful what you ask for.”

In a recent report I made the case that one of the clearest opportunities Georgia missed to move toward the 250,000 new graduates goal is the lack of a system to help the 13,000 students already in the university system and making progress toward their degrees but were dropped in between fall 2013 and fall 2014 because they couldn’t pay for classes. More students in good academic standing have been dropped since then because they too couldn’t pay.

Many more students struggle to pay for school, even HOPE scholars. About 61 percent of low-income HOPE scholars graduate compared to 75 percent of HOPE scholars who aren’t poor. That’s a big gap among the best prepared students. If Georgia had a responsive need-based financial aid program, keeping those qualified students in school gets the state closer to its overall goal.

It’s also important to correct a misimpression many carry that a college education only comes in the form of a four-year degree program at a university. More than 130,000 Georgians attend technical college in the state, and many more would if financial aid covered more of the costs so they could maintain a stable class load. Technical colleges prepare students in two years or less to join the workforce as solid middle income earners.

The HOPE Scholarship for university students and the HOPE Grant for technical college students constitute Georgia’s primary strategy to provide financial aid to students in postsecondary education programs. Thousands of Georgia students have benefited from these programs since their creation in 1993 and many families continue to benefit today. But despite that track record of success, troubling gaps exist.

  • Less than half of in-state students benefit from Georgia’s flagship merit-based aid programs, the HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships. While the two scholarships benefit many, they only reach about 36 percent of students in the university system and 8 percent of students in associate degree programs in the technical college system. A time limit also prevents nontraditional students from accessing the program.

  • The merit-based scholarships are disproportionately out of reach for students of modest means. Only 30 percent of low-income students in the university system get either the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships. That compares to 42 percent of middle- and upper-income students, who likely would go to college even without the financial help.

  • Georgia’s main aid program for technical college students, the HOPE Grant, does a good job reaching low-income students but falls short of meeting students’ full financial needs. The HOPE Grant reaches about 74 percent of technical college students in certificate and diploma programs including 85 percent of low-income students. Cuts to the grant in 2011 reduced the grant amount and eliminated funds for mandatory fees.

Adding 250,000 new university or technical college graduates to Georgia’s workforce by 2025 is an ambitious goal. It’s worth noting that not long ago the state’s goal was to get it done by 2020.

No responsible person is suggesting the way to get there is to send as many students as possible to a four-year college regardless of readiness to do the work. What is called for is for Georgia policymakers to find a way to keep the thousands of qualified students who can’t afford to start classes or are about to drop out moving toward a college degree or certificate.

Those financially struggling students are a large part of the pool of 250,000 potential new college graduates.

(Claire Suggs is senior education policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.)