Considering that the perceived majority of Emory students wish to attend some form of graduate school after college, many of you who are reading this column will likely be well over $100,000 in debt by the time you have completed all of your desired and planned education. According to an article in the New York Times, college students graduating in 2009 had an average debt of $24,000, and the costs of graduate schools can be still many times that amount.
The financial challenges associated with undergraduate education will soon be exacerbated for many Georgia residents under the proposed budget cuts to the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship. As the revisions have been outlined by Governor Nathan Deal, R-Ga. allocations would be reduced for about nine in 10 students currently supported by the scholarship. The new guidelines stipulate that only high school students graduating with a 3.7 GPA and maintaining a 3.5 in college would receive full coverage, while students achieving 3.0 GPA — which earned a full scholarship under the old system — would be given 90 percent coverage.
A 10-percent decrease (which, for perspective, translates to about $1,500 a year for a student at Georgia Tech), doesn’t seem like the end of the world to many of us. But any additional debt incurred during one’s undergraduate experience can only make the attainment of further education a less likely goal. Additionally, the greater problem presented by revisions such as these is that they will have little-to-no impact on the futures of students coming from high-achieving districts and from affluent families — the individuals most negatively and significantly impacted by increased requirements and decreased award amounts will be students coming from less advantaged backgrounds.
The HOPE scholarship makes great strides toward achieving a number of goals, but socioeconomic parity and educational equality are not among them. When then-Gov. Zell Miller laid down the basic proposals for creating the Georgia lottery to fund the scholarship in a 1992 op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he argued that lottery money would “directly help families who are struggling with the high cost of tuition ... if his or her family’s income is below $66,000.” The scholarship, unfortunately, only contained a need-based caveat for a few years before becoming a completely merit-based scholarship. While merit-based scholarships are important for many reasons, the social implications of this particular state-funded one have been disturbing.
In a 2001 study titled “The Distributional Impacts of Lottery-Funded Aid: Evidence from Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship,” researchers Christopher Cornwell and David Mustard from the University of Georgia (UGA) noted that “counties with relatively large shares of African Americans, low-income and poorly-educated people spend relatively more on lottery tickets.” Ironically, students from those counties received significantly fewer scholarships to Georgia public schools. Mustard and UGA economist Chris Burlow also found that the overwhelming majority of HOPE scholarship money — 93 percent of funds — was allocated to students who reportedly would have attended college with or without it.
A sobering consequence of this unequal distribution of scholarship allocations is that already divergent demographics are further separated. While Georgia has experienced an overall increase in college enrollment since the scholarship was implemented in 1993, the discrepancy between enrollment rates among black students and white students, as well as among students from high-income and low-income families, has only worsened since the program was implemented, according to a 2000 study by Susan Dynarski, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University.
This isn’t to say that the HOPE scholarship hasn’t been overwhelmingly successful in other important respects. For example, the initiative has succeeded in creating an incentive for elite Georgia students to pursue higher education in-state after graduation rather than matriculating at out-of-state colleges. This is likely one of the primary reasons UGA has climbed rankings in the past two decades. A 2008 report by graduate student Mauricio Saavedra on the university’s rising undergraduate standing in the U.S. World & News Report attributed the improvement to outstanding financial aid. This conclusion is supported by evidence that the rankings improved despite that peer assessment scores had gone down and that alumni giving remained insignificant during this time.
In this respect, HOPE serves its purpose. In fact, this move was incredibly well-played — the scholarship has both increased college enrollment of Georgia students and elevated the status of several Georgia colleges. The problem is that the HOPE scholarship is a largely retroactive measure that seeks to alleviate certain aspects of educational problems in Georgia while turning a blind eye to others. This is characteristic of a national problem; in order to truly improve the educational inequities that persist across individual counties and school districts inside and outside of Georgia, resources and funding must be concentrated on supporting primary education.
It’s unlikely that ground-up reform will take place in Georgia anytime soon, and disparities in educational opportunity between inner-city Atlanta and affluent suburbs will likely endure to some degree regardless of what measures are taken. Furthermore, the deficits are undeniable, and certain cutbacks are unavoidable if we are to ensure a sustainable future for the program. But revisions like denying tuition coverage for remedial classes will only further set back students who have already been disadvantaged by backgrounds in underperforming school districts.
Furthermore, the current system has been continually undermined by the unexpected problem of grade inflation, which will only become more severe if the GPA requirements are raised. A sliding scale for allocations would make more sense than a single arbitrary cut-off value, and introducing some need-based regulations while keeping a mostly merit-based structure, including the GPA requirements, would be the least harmful revision to the HOPE scholarship. This would ensure that state funds are appropriated in the wisest way while reducing the social impact of the necessary cuts.
In discussions for the future of the scholarship, it is imperative that legislators also re-evaluate the fundamental nature of the program. After all, just because students receiving lottery-funded scholarships like HOPE aren’t paying directly out of the pocket does not mean they come without a cost — that sacrifice should not be one that the state of Georgia is willing to make.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.