Program losing funds

By Trina Trice

When Trent Jones, a senior at Morrow High School, goes to college next fall, he'll be depending on many scholarships, including HOPE, to help pay for his tuition.

So is Cornelius Lindsey, senior at Riverdale High School if he goes to the University of Georgia.

While many Clayton County residents worry about the school system losing its accreditation, which would mean high school graduates won't be eligible for HOPE, high school seniors in the county and throughout the state could face problems with getting a HOPE scholarship due to problems with funding.

State officials say too many high schoolers are qualifying for the HOPE ? which pays for in-state college tuition, books and fees for students with at least a "B" average ? and the program could be in danger of running out of money.

Some officials have suggested tightening the academic requirements for eligibility, not paying some fees and eliminating grants to students already on federal assistance.

"I think the HOPE scholarship is one of the main reasons people get to go to college," Jones said. "The state needs to fix it if they can. I know so many people have depended on it and wouldn't have been able to go to college without it. For most people, it's a good bit of their financial aid."

Lawmakers in Georgia have worried for years that lottery sales one day won't cover the scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs the lottery is supposed to fund.

State officials found out this summer that the two programs could surpass lottery receipts.

Based on current projections, lottery revenues will fall short by $39 million in 2006 and by $221 million in 2007.

And that's assuming lottery revenues don't drop between now and then. Tennessee residents, considered prime border-crossing customers, recently voted to start their own lottery (and HOPE-like scholarship program) that should be up and running by next year, thanks to hiring Rebecca Paul who was pivotal in launching Georgia's lottery in 1993.

Plotting a solution to the HOPE squeeze is a huge task facing Georgia politicians. The scholarship was an instant hit when it debuted 10 years ago, and officials have steadily expanded HOPE ever since, winning political points every time.

At first, HOPE wasn't available to students whose parents were wealthy. The income cap was later dropped. Next, state lawmakers voted to allow college students whose grades fell below the required 3.0 grade point average to reapply for the scholarship after one year, again swelling the rolls.

Another requirement, that a student not receive HOPE and a federal Pell Grant at the same time, was taken away in hopes of helping the poorest students afford room and board, not covered by HOPE. Population growth, the popularity of state schools and tuition increases inflated the cost of the program, too.

In 1994, HOPE cost the state about $21.4 million. Eight years later, the cost was nearly 10 times greater, at $209 million. By fiscal year 2002, HOPE gobbled up $323 million, leaving lottery officials a bit wide-eyed. The lottery is doing well, but not if HOPE keeps growing so fast.

The state has two options, says Shelley Nickel, director of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, either find new money for HOPE or trim the scholarship. Neither will be popular.

"There will be changes. Most likely the changes will be to the requirements or to what HOPE covers," Nickel said. "We're being very proactive in looking at the options, but there are going to be changes."

Lawmakers are considering something called grade-point standardization, a formula to make sure a "C" in one school system isn't considered a "B" in another. The idea is to trim off some borderline students to save money.

"It will prompt competition which will be good," Lindsey said. "Because we all want to be somebody, to be successful. A lot of students are taking these easy classes and are at a higher level (with grade point averages) than a someone whose really trying and taking honors classes and AP classes. It's not fair."

Another option is taking HOPE away from Pell Grant recipients, saving millions a year. But Nickel said that's unlikely.

"We want to make sure that we are indeed helping needy students who are bright students," she said.

Just a decade ago, Georgia universities drew only 23 percent of the state's high school graduates with SAT scores above 1,500. Now, 76 percent of those students remain in Georgia.

"Our mantra is to be focused on what we tried to achieve in the first place, which is using the lottery to help Georgia students afford college," Nickel said. "We're still going to do that. We don't know what HOPE may look like down the road, but we're still going to meet that mission."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.