Georgia's Unmissable but Far from Unheard of Chance to Fund Need-Based Aid

May 31, 2018

By Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate 

Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that authorized Georgia’s first need-based aid program, thereby charging the Georgia Student Finance Commission with establishing the program’s parameters. Consequently, the NCAN-member commission has a unique opportunity to provide low-income Georgians with greater economic mobility by constructing an efficient and equitable postsecondary aid program, and the state's lawmakers will have an unmissable chance to adequately fund it.

Several states debated need-based aid legislation last year, and Gov. Deal’s signature leaves New Hampshire as the last state standing without such a program. Thus, there are 48 examples for the commission to draw from as its members devise Georgia's plan.

The chance for additional financial relief is overdue for low-income students in Georgia, as the average cost of attendance at University System of Georgia (USG) institutions increased by 77 percent from 2006-15. This trend is largely due to forces that all too often drive up college costs, such as appropriators’ disinvestment, tuition hikes, and institutional decisions.

This increasing lack of affordability, coupled with a state system designed without an intent to reach those who need aid most, exacerbates the inequitable circumstance facing Georgia’s most vulnerable students.

Eligibility requirements for Georgia’s primary aid program, the HOPE Scholarship, include a 3.0 GPA in high school and throughout higher education, and enrollment in rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement ones. The result of these criteria is that 30 percent of low-income students begin at a USG institution with the scholarship – a significantly lower proportion than the 42 percent of middle- and high-income students who do so.

Perhaps most telling is that only half of Georgia’s low-income high school graduates enroll in higher education, while the national average for those in the bottom 20 percent of earners is more than two-thirds.

Nevertheless, a well-structured need-based aid program can help minimize the financial burden currently on the shoulders of Georgia’s low-income students.

The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute estimated that 16,700 students would receive grant aid under a previous version of the bill. That failed version, however, included potentially damaging eligibility constraints, such as a 15-hour work week and full-time enrollment, indicating that a program aimed at serving traditionally underrepresented students could reach a substantially higher number of students.

The commission is operating under a single statutory restriction as it sketches out the program: Only students at USG institutions are eligible for the aid. Otherwise, its members have total authority in setting parameters such as maximum award amount, eligibility criteria, and application processes.

Once the commission completes this extremely consequential assignment, an even larger one will be in the hands of the state legislature, as those lawmakers will determine the extent to which the program is supported by taxpayers.




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