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Lawmakers fix HOPE mistake

Posted: May 12, 2013 - 12:02am

It’s no secret that politicians often make mistakes – a lot of them.

We are all human and we all make mistakes, so politicians are not unique. I have often observed, however, that elected officeholders can be extremely reluctant to admit they have made a mistake and then do something about it.

That’s why it was so heartening to see the governor and the General Assembly recognize a serious error they made two years ago and attempt to fix that error in this year’s session.

The misjudgment involves HOPE Grants, financial aid that is provided through Georgia Lottery revenues to students who take job training courses at the state’s network of technical colleges.

HOPE Grants help students pay the tuition for classes that teach them the skills necessary to find a new job or get their working life off to a successful start. Although the grants come from the same pot of money that funds HOPE Scholarships in the University System, HOPE Grants are a different form of financial aid aimed at a different kind of student.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said the state will need 250,000 more college graduates by 2020 to meet Georgia’s growing workforce needs. About 50,000 of those graduates will have to come from the technical colleges.

In 2011, when Deal and the Legislature were developing a bill to stabilize the financially troubled HOPE program, one of the changes they made was to raise the grade point average required for a HOPE Grant from the 2.0 level to the 3.0 level.

The change worked, in terms of reducing the demand for HOPE Grants, but it worked too well. Student enrollment in the technical college system dropped by almost 24,500 students the year after the GPA requirement was raised, and continued to drop in the following year. An estimated 9,000 students lost the HOPE Grant because they could not maintain a 3.0 average.

In technical colleges, as opposed to public universities, a high GPA is not the primary goal for a student. What is more important is that the student learns the job skills being taught by the technical college so that the state has another well-trained worker.

“Technical colleges are different, technical college students are different, the academic setting is different,” said Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna. “The financial aid that goes to those students should recognize those differences.”

Evans, who was able to attend college herself because of a HOPE scholarship, proposed a bill during this past session to change the GPA requirement for a HOPE Grant back to the 2.0 level so that more students would be able to afford job training courses.

Deal recognized the need for the legislation and instructed his House floor leaders, along with Evans as one of the sponsors, to introduce a HOPE Grant bill (HB 372) that reinstated the former 2.0 GPA requirement.

“In recent years, Georgia has seen a large drop in technical college enrollment – much larger than in our University System,” Deal said. “For some students enrolled in a technical school, the loss of scholarship money put higher education out of reach.”

The passage of the HOPE Grant bill provided a good example of bipartisan cooperation in this year’s legislative session. Republicans and Democrats teamed up to pass the bill by overwhelming margins in both chambers.

“This is a good step in the right direction and will undo some of the damage that was done two years ago,” Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, said when the Senate passed HB 372.

The only legislator voting against the HOPE bill was Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw, who like Evans represents a Cobb County district but is much more of a political extremist.

Deal signed the bill into law a couple of weeks ago.

“We need more college or technical college degrees in order to attract and fill the jobs of tomorrow,” the governor said at the bill signing. “This additional benefit will provide Georgians with greater access to school at a relatively small cost to the state.”

While the governor didn’t say it, he and the legislators were finally acknowledging and fixing a big mistake they made during the 2011 session.

Let’s hope they can fix more of their mistakes when the General Assembly convenes next year.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com.)

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