Rep. Stacey Evans: ‘The HOPE grant should equal full tuition’

The Smyrna Democrat eyes changes to Georgia’s gambling-funded tuition program as casino proponents woo state lawmakers.
Rep. Stacey Evans

Courtesy Rep. Stacey Evans

Four years ago, state lawmakers altered HOPE, the merit-based program that uses Georgia Lottery revenue to fund scholarships and grants for prospective college students, because the program was projected to go broke during the recession. The changes they made—reducing how many students qualified and how much they received—are now back up for reconsideration this week as lawmakers listen to casino proponents argue how legalizing table games and slot machines across the state could provide the state with up to $1.5 billion in additional funding for education, healthcare, transportation, and other needs.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, a Democrat from Smyrna who’s played an active role in shaping HOPE, is keeping a close eye on the study committee that’s weighing whether casinos should come to Georgia. In a recent interview, Evans chatted with us about how she would like to see the program retooled, the potential role of casinos in shoring up the state’s academic scholarship program, and why the state would benefit from providing some students with needs-based aid.

What changes would you like to see with the HOPE scholarship, which funds a portion of tuition for high school students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA; the Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers full tuition for those with a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT; and the HOPE grant, which offers full technical college tuition for those with a 2.0 GPA?
The HOPE grant should equal full tuition, and right now it’s just a percentage. The grant is cheaper than the scholarship. It’s needed because we’ve got a skills gap in a lot of the areas where we’re missing the jobs, and unemployed folks are in areas where they can be trained at technical colleges. It’s not all of them, but it’s a lot of them. It’s a real good way to get students in the door, get them out, and get them employed. There’s a $21 million-$23 million price tag—all lottery funds. The lottery is healthy enough to do that with nothing changing.

The other legislation I’m trying to push hard—and I’ve talked about it with the governor’s office—is a bill that would allow the Zell Miller Scholarship to be given after students get to college. Right now, the only way you can get full tuition to college at a four-year school is to get a 3.7 GPA and 1200 [math and verbal] SAT score. You have one chance to win and that’s at high school graduation. Let’s say you, for whatever reason, didn’t qualify at high school graduation—most likely because of the SAT—but you have the grades to still get into a good college. If you get to school and knock it out of the park, and may even have a 4.0, you can never become eligible for the Zell Miller Scholarship.

I know the stated reason is that we didn’t want to give full tuition to students who were going to drop out and not finish, or lose it by making a 3.0 GPA—Zell Miller Scholars have to make a 3.3 GPA to maintain full tuition. But if you’re doing well in college, it doesn’t really matter what your SAT score is anymore. The bill would allow students who maintain the required GPA of the Zell Miller Scholarship to then become eligible for full tuition.

The governor seems open to the idea. I think he wants a higher threshold, like a 3.5 GPA [in college]. I’m open to that. The price tag on the bill as I have it drafted—assuming a 3.3 GPA—is about $36 million. That’s more expensive because that’s the scholarship. But it’ll help a lot of kids like me—if I was coming up now, I wouldn’t have qualified for the Zell Miller Scholarship because I had a 3.8 GPA but didn’t have anywhere near the required SAT. But I did really well in college. I would’ve benefited from the bill I’m proposing.

The lottery is healthy enough to do both of those things right now. Our reserves are about $350 million—75 percent higher than it has to be by law—just sitting there, ready to be spent. We know it’s growing by at least $60 million every year. If we can approve the casino bill, that could be an influx of several hundred million dollars more.

The way the effort to legalize casinos is linked to the HOPE scholarship seems like replay of the push for the Georgia Lottery in the early ’90s. In that sense, the debate seems to be as much about education policy as it is morality.
You’ve got to tell people what you’re going to do with this money. You’re going to have to tell voters what you’re going to spend that money on. Obviously, my bills are one idea. The idea of needs-based aid sometimes scares Republicans away. But you could talk about it differently. If you establish a scholarship for first-generation college students, you’re going to capture need because those kids are more likely to qualify if you did a straight-up needs-based scholarship. You could have HOPE be a set dollar amount that would be enough to go to an Albany State University or a Dalton State University without paying out of pocket. But if you were going to go to University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, you might pay more. That’s going to drive poorer students because they’re more likely to choose smaller schools so they can stay close to home.

Another idea is for HOPE to pay full tuition for someone going to a non-research university, and a certain percentage for those who chose to go to a research university. That would help those who need it the most without saying that’s what you’re doing.

Most of those students are also from metro Atlanta.
Exactly. If you go to voters and say we’re going to approve this casino referendum because we’re going to spend more money on HOPE, most people would be scratching their heads. A lot of people don’t realize that HOPE doesn’t cover what it used to. If you showed people how much money the lottery is sitting on—it’s a reserve fund, but it’s growing more than $60 million—people would say you don’t need more money. So we need to be specific: What are we going to do with this money? We may need to come up with another name—I want to call it PACT, Preparing for Advanced Careers Together—and it would allow for students pursuing two-year associate degrees to get full tuition if they agree to a certain number of mentoring and community service hours. It’s similar to the Tennessee Promise scholarship.

Some people have said we should spend the money on Medicaid expansion—not in the Obamacare sense, but on Medicaid—or transportation or something to help rural hospitals. I’m a huge advocate for spending it on those causes, but I don’t think the public would go for that, having just raised the gas tax to pay for transportation. And isn’t the state already supposed to pay for Medicaid? That’s a harder sell than kids.

Casinos were once a nonstarter. But with the lottery’s existence over the past two decades, has opposition in Georgia eroded enough for blackjack and roulette to be welcomed?
You now can gamble online. Certainly you have more arguments now than you had 20 years ago. You can go on a riverboat in Savannah and gamble. If you haven’t been in a casino, your neighbors have, or family members. MGM or another casino businesses would say their casinos are not just gambling—it’s entertainment, it’s Cirque Du Soleil, it’s shopping.

Do you think there’s an appetite for casino legislation on its own merits?
You need that second piece. I don’t think it would work as just a bill allowing people to come into the state and generate sales tax revenue. I could be wrong about that, but I think you’re going to need something that makes people feel good about inviting in what most people think of as a vice.

What resistance are you anticipating with your proposals?
There’s an attitude among conservative Republican lawmakers that a HOPE scholarship should be merit-based and not dependent on any kind of need. I don’t know where that comes from—I guess the idea of a perceived handout. But if you give a tuition dollar to a student who needs it, that student will become a productive member of the middle class and pay a lot of money in tax revenue they might not otherwise earn. It’s not fair to tag all Republicans with this, but there’s a school of thought that says, “I paid my way through and you can too.” But tuition is too high now for people to work their way through school and graduate in four years like they did back in the day. People who subscribe to that idea don’t have kids in college, don’t pay those tuition bills, and they’re thinking about a reality from a long time ago. There’s a hesitancy of letting government be part of a solution.

For those reasons, it’s safer for everybody if we say it another way. There are enough Republicans who think there’s a need for helping students—and who want to help the least of us—but don’t want to say it that way. You’re going to need two-thirds [of lawmakers’ support]. The conventional wisdom is that you need all the Democrats and a fair number of Republicans to get this done. You’re not going to get all the Democrats if this isn’t money returned to the community in need. Why would we do that?

What are you keeping your eye on with this week’s hearings?
The folks who have an interest in pushing the casino bill simply for business reasons need to think long and hard about what we’re going to spend the money on. If you don’t worry about that on the front end, I don’t think it’s going to pass. You have to spend that cash on something that people want. Otherwise you’re not going to get to the part where you have your business interests served. I’m not sure those dots are connected right now.