HOPE Scholarship: The pros

The program has surpassed its goals. So why are people complaining?
Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration by Dan Page

The HOPE scholarship program was launched two decades ago with three specific goals: increase the number of Georgians with postsecondary education, improve the overall quality of the state’s university system, and stanch the exodus of high-achieving students. HOPE has accomplished all three aims—and then some. Over the past two decades, the number of Georgians with college degrees increased from 19 to 28 percent. The state’s big schools, not just Tech and UGA, have become more competitive (see the chart of rising SATs here). And kids who could go anywhere in the country stay here; a decade after HOPE’s debut, more than 40 percent of Georgia high school seniors who scored between 1400 and 1490 on the SAT elected to stay in-state for college—double the rate before the scholarship existed.

You can’t argue with the numbers. But I see those stats through an admittedly biased lens: I’ve experienced HOPE’s impact on all three measures—as a state school alum, as a college instructor, and as a parent.

I attended Georgia State University in the 1980s, when it was a commuter school. Back then, the average freshman was twenty-seven. When I took Reporting 101 as a nineteen-year-old, we studied Tom Wicker’s New York Times account of the Kennedy assassination. I wasn’t born when JFK was shot; my classmates, on the other hand, all remembered reading that Wicker piece—as adults. My GSU education was serviceable, but my college experience was tough. Struggling to balance work, school, and the stressors of young adulthood, I found nothing in the way of support services. It took six and a half years, but eventually I graduated—with a C average but an extended professional resume.

In 2005 I returned to GSU to pursue a master’s degree. Walking to my car after the first night of classes, I passed dozens of teenagers on the steps in front of the General Classroom Building. What are they doing here? There must be something happening over at Philips Arena, I thought, until it dawned on me: They were students waiting to catch a campus shuttle to their dorms. In the years since I first graduated, the university has transformed from a part-time school for nontraditional students to an urban campus with dorms, cafeterias, frat houses, and even a football team. GSU—now classified as a research university—has attracted stellar faculty, added research labs, and rolled out high-tech classrooms. Its academic standards have been raised dramatically. Part of this change is due to a couple of inspired university presidents, but HOPE played a huge role. “It’s not an overstatement to say that, at Georgia State, the HOPE Scholarship has been transformative,” says Timothy Renick, vice provost. “Our student body has grown larger, more accomplished, and more diverse in part from HOPE’s power to make a college education accessible to new populations of students.”

> Our recommendation: Get rid of the Zell

As an adjunct, I teach at both Emory University (number twenty on the U.S. News roster of national universities) and the University of Georgia (awarded the number sixty national and number twenty public spots by U.S. News). While it might rankle my colleagues over in Druid Hills to read this, the students at both schools are equally smart, well read, and ambitious. The local kids in my UGA classes could have attended school anywhere in the country (or over at Emory, I suppose), but they chose UGA because of the opportunities it offers—yes, including the financial boost that HOPE provides.

And finally, my family benefits directly from HOPE. My daughter applied to a number of Southeastern universities, and her acceptance packages came back with hefty merit scholarships from private schools that tout their high rankings and downplay their stratospheric price tags. If HOPE hadn’t been a factor and UGA’s academics hadn’t improved as they have over the past twenty years, her choice would have been a no-brainer: Wave goodbye to Georgia and juggle a scholarship and student loans to attend a school with a national reputation. But with HOPE she got a full ride in the Honors Program at UGA and will graduate debt-free. Without the extra burden of work-study or loans, she was able as an underclassman to focus fully on classes, take part in challenging extras like UGA’s undergrad research program, volunteer, and complete internships (all while my husband and I were able to set aside more savings to help her with graduate school). Now a senior, she holds down a challenging job at the UGA Veterinary College, serves as president of a student club, and has raised thousands of dollars for Athens-area charities. I know I’m biased, but she is the kind of young adult Zell Miller had in mind when he talked about HOPE keeping top students in-state.

Are there flaws with the HOPE program? Of course. Here’s the main one: While it’s supposed to make college more accessible for everyone, in reality HOPE most benefits middle-class families like mine, the kind who plan to send our kids to college no matter what. Its focus on test scores—in particular the recently added Zell Miller Scholarship requirements—favor whiter, wealthier students, a fact that is readily visible when walking across campus at UGA. (Consider: Seventy-four percent of the undergrads at UGA are white, compared with 40 percent at Emory.) Second, HOPE’s rigid rules mean that one shaky grading period can result in an automatic scholarship loss. This places a particular burden on students who have to work while in college; I for one would never have been able to maintain HOPE as a working undergrad.

But I dispute two main complaints: that middle-class recipients least need the help HOPE offers and that HOPE has unfairly made Georgia’s flagship schools—UGA and Tech—inaccessible. With tuition rising at ridiculous rates, middle-class families need help more than anyone. There are grants and scholarships for lower-income families. Truly wealthy families don’t have to worry about tuition. But for those of us who fall somewhere in between—don’t qualify for need-based aid but can’t blithely write tuition checks—HOPE is a godsend.

Yes, HOPE has made it tougher to get into UGA. (Let’s not fool ourselves; it’s always been tough to get into Tech.) When HOPE was launched twenty years ago, UGA had a solid but hardly spectacular reputation. Many parents of current high schoolers, remembering what UGA used to be like, are taken aback when their offspring don’t breeze in as Bulldogs. But rather than fixating on who gets in or doesn’t, everyone—parents, kids, and policy makers—needs to consider how the caliber of all state schools continues to rise. For most undergrads, Georgia College & State University, for instance, is more challenging today than UGA was two decades ago. Georgia State, once a commuter school, now ranks as best in the nation for boosting graduation efforts.

Maybe kids—if not yet their parents—are starting to realize the value of schools other than UGA and Tech. “A lot of our students are finding more colleges in the state that are attractive to them. There are some wonderful schools,” says Anne Carlson, department chair of school counseling at Walton High, which produces more HOPE-eligible graduates than any school in Georgia. “I used to hear, ‘If I don’t go to UGA or Georgia Tech, I’m going out of state.’ I don’t hear that at all anymore.”

> HOPE Scholarship: The cons: Did the legislature’s 2011 reforms ruin HOPE?

> HOPE Scholarship by the numbers:The story explained in graphs

> Our recommendation: Get rid of the Zell

This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue.