Rekindle the HOPE Scholarship

The reality of Emory’s cost of attendance hit me hard last winter break. Money that I thought would last longer was starting to run out. I sent a transfer application to my state school, thinking that it would reduce expenses. Three months later, I received my financial aid offer from the University of New Hampshire; even with a merit scholarship, it was just as expensive as Emory.

I felt sick, especially after a conversation with my Georgian roommate about the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) Scholarship. If Georgia is willing to offer in-state students significant aid for its already lower in-state public tuition rates and just over $4,000 for Zell Miller Scholarship recipients at private institutions like Emory, why isn’t New Hampshire? In retrospect, my initial understanding of HOPE as economically redistributive was misguided — since its inception, HOPE has become much less beneficial for low-income and minority families. However, the upcoming gubernatorial race in Georgia has given Georgians a chance to support candidates that will reverse this trend.

Governor Zell Miller signed the HOPE Scholarship into law in 1993 with three goals in mind: to incentivize students to perform better in high school; to keep talented Georgians in-state; and to make college more accessible for minority and low-income students — all funded by the new Georgia Lottery. Originally, the scholarship paid for two years of tuition for B-average students that came from families earning less than $66,000 a year, but the income cap was abolished in 1995. Though that expansion did not directly hurt low-income students, ending the need-based component of HOPE set a dangerous precedent as to who the program should prioritize. Further, since HOPE was established using the Georgia Lottery’s revenue, any decline in lottery sales could destabilize the program.

In fiscal year 2011, lawmakers were forced to manage a decline in state lottery revenue during the Great Recession. Necessary cuts to HOPE and other lottery-backed educational programs were then proposed in March 2011 at the Georgia General Assembly as Republicans and Democrats alike saw the need to reduce spending. State Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Ga.), a HOPE recipient herself, proposed a re-institution of the income cap at $140,000 a year to ensure that HOPE helped those that needed it most. Instead, State Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.), worked with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to impose new GPA and SAT restrictions on the program’s candidates. While both proposed solutions reduced spending by limiting the candidate pool, imposing higher academic standards hurt the students Evans tried to protect; studies have shown a direct correlation between SAT score and both household income and race. Ultimately, Evans’ proposal sought to protect access for minority and low-income students, while Abrams and Deal’s protected access for the upper and middle classes.

The fallout from those reforms has been severe. HOPE, at least as it exists currently, seems to preserve economic and racial privileges. A study from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute found disparities along wealth-based and racial lines, consistent with what using the SAT to determine HOPE candidates might create. With regard to income, the Institute notes that “only 30 percent of low-income students in the university system get either the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships, compared to 42 percent of middle- and upper-income students.” With regard to race, the study found that “only about 20 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students get either the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships, versus 46 percent of Asian American and 45 percent of white students.”

With Deal’s second and final term coming to an end, Georgia Democrats have an opportunity to retake the state during the state and federal 2018 midterm elections. Both Evans and Abrams have declared their intent to run for governor, and the HOPE Scholarship’s problems have not gone undiscussed.

Evans’ campaign has been built upon repairing the HOPE Scholarship program, to which she attributes “everything that’s good in [her] life,” as HOPE allowed her to attend the University of Georgia. Her website doesn’t list the precise changes she would make to HOPE, although her legislative actions and life experience express a strong commitment to the program’s original focus on low-income students.

Abrams has proposed similar measures. Her website lists “a robust needs-based aid program,” under her specific legislative goals, consistent with a 2016 interview with WABE reporter Dennis O’Hayer, in which Abrams advocated for “HOPE II,” meant to provide low-income Georgia students with new need-based aid. She later called it “the next frontier for Georgia,” now that lottery revenue has recovered.

Surprisingly, Abrams has tried to spin the 2011 HOPE cuts to her benefit, as she claims that they “preserved a full-day of pre-kindergarten for 4 year-olds” by redistributing HOPE funding to primary education. Given that early childhood researchers, including Georgetown University’s (D.C.) Professor of Psychology Deborah Phillips and Duke University’s (N.C.) Professor of Psychology Kenneth Dodge, have concluded that minority and low-income children benefit most from such programs; Abrams’ actions in 2011 seem justified. However, such a conclusion rests on the assumption that Republicans really would have slashed pre-kindergarten funding without her compromise, a questionable premise given Deal’s willingness to bolster spending for pre-kindergarten programs in 2015.

As a low-income student myself, Evans’ commitment to reforming the HOPE Scholarship is appealing. However, Abrams’ proposed solutions would probably work just as well, even despite her willingness to make HOPE less accessible in 2011. New Hampshire may not resolve its tuition problems anytime soon, but because of Abrams’ and Evans’ campaigns, I’m hopeful that Georgia can correct its issues of privilege in post-secondary education. Lack of progress in other states shows the unique situation Georgians are presented with, and inaction from those that benefit from an unjust system is unacceptable. Current beneficiaries of the HOPE Scholarship, including those at Emory, must stand up — and show up at the ballot box to vote for either of these candidates — to make an affordable post-secondary education equally accessible for all students.

Isaiah Sirois is a College sophomore from Nashua, N.H.