Commentary: Tuition hikes and HOPE on the rocks. No wonder parents are stressing.


First, the somewhat good news. On Tuesday, the Georgia university system’s board of regents announced 2012-2013 tuition rates for Georgia colleges and universities, trumpeting that the increase would be the lowest in a decade.

Well, as it turns out, that statement needs a little qualification. While rate increases across the board will be a modest 2.5 percent, tuition hikes at Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and Georgia State will be 6, 5, and 3.5 percent respectively. So, while students at thirty-two Georgia colleges will see tuition increase a modest $31 to $91 per semester, those at the three big research schools will be looking at much steeper bills. For full-time students, per-semester hikes will be $218 at Tech, $182 at UGA, and $127 at GSU. Although the Regents held non-tuition fees flat this year, they’re higher at those three schools, too; $1,090 at Tech, $1,098 at UGA, and $1,064 at Georgia State for fall 2012. By comparison, fees at Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State, and Clayton State are $936, $817, and $702.

The Regents say tuition increases at Tech, UGA, and GSU put the cost of attending the institutions in line with peers in other states. Sure, maybe putting Tech at tuition parity with Purdue makes sense from a national perspective, but for many Georgia families, the rate increases are just the latest in a series of college-cost curveballs that are changing the decision to   have a child attend one of the state’s schools from a no-brainer to one loaded with uncertainty.

The new tuition increases follow last year’s overhaul of the HOPE scholarship, a move that left tens of thousands of students scrambling to come up with tuition funds; never mind that they’d enrolled in Georgia schools with the promise of HOPE covering all their tuition.

If you aren’t familiar with the HOPE changes, a quick recap follows. If you’re up on HOPE, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The merit-based HOPE program, launched by then governor Zell Miller in 1993, once offered a simple promise. If you graduated from a Georgia high school with a B average, you got full tuition at a Georgia public college as long as you kept a 3.0 GPA. As the number of HOPE recipients grew, tuition costs soared, and the economy tanked, HOPE started running out of cash. So last year, lawmakers revamped the program, creating a two-tiered scholarship. HOPE now covers only a portion of tuition (87 percent at UGA last year) thus earning the nickname “HOPE Lite.” Full tuition is now offered only to Zell Miller scholars, students who meet tougher parameters — graduating with a 3.7 high school GPA and 1200 on their SATs, and keeping up a 3.3 GPA in college.   

Lawmakers took this step to balance the HOPE budget. That’s totally understandable. But what’s unfair is that the changes were applied retroactively. Thousands of students who made the decision to attend school in Georgia assured that their tuition would be covered, suddenly learned they would have to come up with extra cash. (Disclosure: my daughter is a sophomore at UGA and qualified for the Miller scholarship.)

UGA members of the class of 2014 who enrolled assuming they had HOPE coverage will need to fork over $990 toward tuition costs this year, something they didn’t plan on when becoming Dawgs back in 2010.

Uncertainty for families isn’t going to end anytime soon. Despite the changes made to HOPE last year, the lottery-funded program (which also covers technical school and pre-K programs) is still running low. What percentage of tuition HOPE will cover in coming years isn’t clear. In addition, lawmakers are proposing re-instating an income-cap on the program. Also not clear: what that cap would be, when it would go into effect, and if it would stay the same from year to year. The future of the Miller scholarship program is also being debated.

One of Zell Miller’s goals when HOPE  was launched was thwarting a “brain drain,” by encouraging top students to stay in state. Before HOPE, only a quarter of students who scored more than 1400 on the SAT stayed in Georgia for college; now three times as many do. But how will uncertainty about the program influence enrollment over the next few years? Families make decisions about college looking at the cost over four years. If the scholarship program changes year to year, and if qualification standards are changed and applied retroactively, it becomes harder to make a four-year commitment to a Georgia school.

COMING NEXT: If you don’t buy lottery tickets, does your kid deserve HOPE? The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute isn’t so sure.