Let’s Talk About HOPE and College Access

Since its creation in 1993, the HOPE scholarship has been instrumental in making post secondary education more accessible for students. However, due to changes made in 2011, the window of opportunity is becoming smaller and smaller. According to a report done by Georgia Budget & Policy Institute senior education policy analyst Claire Suggs, fewer students are receiving HOPE than ever before.

Once covering a student’s full tuition costs, the HOPE program now only provides partial tuition coverage for most. The requirements for receiving HOPE have also become stricter, requiring a 3.0 GPA, high SAT or ACT scores and at least four college-level courses such as advanced placement classes. Higher requirements as well as an age restriction preventing those who are seven years out of high school from obtaining HOPE, result in a smaller number of people being able to continue their education.

Other HOPE programs include the Zell Miller Scholarship, granting full tuition to those with a 3.7 GPA in addition to high SAT or ACT scores and four college-level courses, the HOPE grant for those completing a degree or certificate at a technical college requiring a 2.0 GPA and the Zell Miller grant that requires a 3.5 GPA and covers full tuition costs. Both the HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarship are more likely to go to middle and high-income students.

The new requirements affect students of various race and ethnicities, however those hit the hardest are black students with an amazing 80 percent not receiving HOPE. Without the aid of HOPE, students are left struggling to pay for tuition and other mandatory fees.

To mitigate the issue, the GBPI report details possible ways to improve HOPE including doing away with the age requirement and restoring the HOPE grant to full tuition and fees for technical colleges. Perhaps one of the most important solutions offered is to create a completely separate need-based aid program specifically for low-income students and their families. Higher education policy analyst for the GBPI, Jennifer Lee, suggests that HOPE itself isn’t the problem, as it is a merit-based scholarship, but rather the lack of need-based scholarships.

“The HOPE scholarship was originally designed to keep high performing students in the state,” said Lee. “The problem is that Georgia doesn’t have another scholarship program for students in need.”

Even if Georgia restored the HOPE scholarship to cover full tuition and fees and lowered the test score and class requirements, it wouldn’t solve the problem of lower-income students, particularly black students, being overlooked in terms of access to financial aid. Due to the historical under funding of K-12 schools in low-income, primarily black neighborhoods and cities, many students simply don’t have the resources such as college-level courses and academic support to qualify for HOPE.

Keeping in mind that HOPE is mostly a reward for top students and those who have already had good opportunities, how do we support students that may not have a great GPA and test scores? How do we make sure everyone has the access to post secondary education and the ability to financially support themselves through college?

Dr. Deshawn Preston of the Southern Education Foundation suggests paying attention not only to tuition and fees, but also the cost of living. The Southern Education Foundation is an organization focusing on equity in education and providing options to allow everyone access to college. The organization is currently working on a report looking specifically at cost of attendance, a factor that is often overlooked when preparing students for college.

“Past focusing on tuition, we need to look at other factors,” said Preston. “What are the transportation options, what kind of insurance do these students have, how do we keep students in college once they get there?”

Preston also says that more money is often put into keeping freshman and sophomores afloat, but options significantly lessen as students continue their education. Students can’t prioritize college if they have other financial needs such as housing and health care.

Both Lee and Preston emphasize the importance of contacting local legislatures and politicians and speaking about issues that are important to you.

“The best way to talk to legislatures is to come with personal stories and issues and let them know what you care about,” said Lee.

Preston also stresses how important voting at the local level is. Start small and affect change in your local communities and branch out. We can make important changes to HOPE as well as advocate for need-based financial aid programs. The change starts within our communities.