Some thoughts on the cuts to HOPE scholarships

As was widely expected and necessary, Gov. Nathan Deal proposed cuts to the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship and pre-K programs. I haven’t been thrilled with the comprehensiveness of any of the news reports I’ve seen so far, but the AJC’s seems to deal with the cuts most substantively: “Deal unveils cuts for HOPE, pre-K”.

At the bottom of that article, you can find a bit of hard data, including:

Only students who have a 3.7 grade point average from high school will get 100 percent coverage of tuition under the newly created Zell Miller Scholarship. They must maintain a 3.5 GPA in college.

All other students with a 3.0 GPA can receive scholarships equal to 90 percent of the 2010-2011 tuition costs.

Students who have lost HOPE or the Miller scholarship will have one shot at reclaiming it. Currently, there’s no limit on how many times they can try to reclaim it.

Mandatory fees and books are no longer covered.

Remedial courses will only be covered at technical colleges.

Pre-k hours would be cut from 6.5 a day to 4 a day.

Transportation and extended day funding for pre-k will be increased.

These changes were announced with broad bipartisan support already in place, so it’s a fair bet that we’re looking at the final package.

Now, it’s obvious from the numbers that something needed to be done. Lottery sales are simply not bringing in enough revenue to support HOPE as it currently stands. But I’m disappointed that the proposal focuses on “merit” over need. I put “merit” in quotation marks like that because there’s nothing particularly magical about a 3.7 or a 1200 SAT. Lots of very successful students in classes don’t have a prayer of getting that on the SAT, and a student with one bad year of high school might be mathematically eliminated from achieving a 3.7. (I’m not going to discuss the pressures for grade inflation in both high school and college, but this proposal will increase them.) By and large, the students who get the full scholarship will be those from stable, supportive, and likely wealthier families — families that could have more easily absorbed cuts to the programs than some of the families of students who are struggling.

And what happens once one of those top students gets to college with a full ride and is immediately faced with a 10% scholarship loss after a strong first semester of 3 Bs and 2 As?

Georgia will still be offering one of the more generous scholarship programs in the country for its in-state university students. But enacting these changes right now will put downward pressure on enrollments. I work at Armstrong here in Savannah and am certain some struggling students will drop out or take fewer classes per semester, which dramatically reduces their chances ever of finishing. And the additional money pulled from students’ pockets — apparently as early as 6 months from now — will put even more downward pressure on the state economy (the Philadelphia Fed’s leading indicators show the state economy contracting over the next 6 months already).

What would I have done? I would have made the cuts based on need rather than GPA, I would have left somewhat more money in the program for books and fees, and I would have looked at other revenue streams. This is just the beginning of this new path — these HOPE cuts will inevitably be followed by more since the program will now be tied directly to lottery revenue and not to tuition costs and increases.

All that said, I’ve long been a rare critic of a key component of HOPE: the lottery funding. Go down to a convenience store in some struggling area of Savannah, say along Pennsylvania Avenue, and you’ll often see a line of people (generally men, in my experience) waiting to buy lottery tickets. One or two might get lucky from time to time, but none are likely to come out ahead over time — and those poor communities just see money evaporate. Sure, no one is putting a gun to their heads, but it’s just sort of sad that so many people are effectively choosing to tax themselves selectively rather than save so that other people’s kids can go to college. I thinks we should offer free public college tuition to state residents, but I think the lottery probably does more harm than good to the state.