The average SAT score of pupils graduating in 2003 from Columbia County schools is 1037; Georgias average is 984.
As a result, the idea of linking HOPE scholarship funds to SAT scores may play well here, in one of the counties that also receives among the highest levels of HOPE funding. But the notion doesnt have as much appeal around the rest of the state, where more scholars are likely to struggle to meet a mandated minimum.
Something, however, has to be done. HOPE, according to state officials, will run $200 million short of projected obligations within seven years. A commission studying ways to save the program has focused mostly on cutting back to a fixed level of support - say, $3,000 per student per year instead of full tuition payment - and eliminating funding for books and student fees.
Theres a good argument in favor of setting a fixed HOPE payment: By promising to pay full tuition, HOPE has helped enable state institutions to inflate their costs with little complaint from their customers. Its not unlike medical insurance; medical care is expensive, but most patients never see the cost - and make free-market decisions accordingly - because of insurance.
Whats the rate of inflation for tuition? asks state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans. Thats the question we need to ask.
Additionally, setting a fixed amount for HOPE could help restore some responsibility to parents, who since the advent of HOPE have been less inclined to save for their childrens educations. In a perverse sort of way, theyre gambling that their children maintain a B average so lottery-playing gamblers pay for their kids to go to college.
Returning some tuition responsibility to parents could also encourage participation in Georgias Higher Education Savings Plan, a so-called 529 plan that offers considerable tax advantages (for details, go to www.gacollegesavings.com).
Tying HOPE to the SAT, as Gov. Sonny Perdue suggests, would provide an altogether appropriate measuring stick for scholarship eligibility. But it wont fly, especially next year when lawmakers are looking to their re-elections and pandering to SAT critics. Whats more likely to happen, Harbin says, is that other lottery-funded programs such as Pre-K may take a hit, while HOPE funds are scaled back.
Even without using the SAT, the state already has a better measure looming ahead - and Columbia County students will be among those soon to feel its effect. Starting in the second semester of this school year, students in eight specific high-school courses - with the state adding more each year - must pass an end-of-course test to receive credit.
The failure rate for these tests - including those for Algebra 1, literature and composition, U.S. history - could create a dropoff in HOPE-eligible students even without any additional requirements.
The tests will be piloted in December, and theyll count for grades - and graduation - next spring. If the students arent well prepared, they just may save HOPE themselves by flunking out of it before the program goes broke.
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