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College still out of reach for too many

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POSTED: March 13, 2012 10:10 a.m.

While the Georgia General Assembly continues its politically suspect obsession with creating state-run public schools, a more pressing education issue demands attention.
There is a cognitive and fiscal disconnect between Gov. Nathan Deal’s ambitious and right-minded goal of 250,000 more college graduates by 2020, and the reality that fewer and fewer Georgians can afford college at all.
It’s all worsened, of course, by the economic woes of the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, which has been reduced for all but the state’s academic elite — most of whom are from affluent suburban families and well-funded school districts. The governor has tried to offset those cuts by pushing for need-based assistance for deserving students in the form of scholarships and low-interest loans.
Meanwhile, Deal has called for a hold on further changes to HOPE until the state can get a fix on how the changes already in place will affect the scholarship fund — and Georgia students’ access, or lack of it, to higher education.
Among the proposed changes is a Democratic plan led by Sen. Jason Carter of Atlanta to reinstate a family income cap, but with a higher cutoff. The original scholarship in 1993 was limited to family incomes of less than $66,000 a year, raised to $100,000 the next year and eliminated altogether in 1995. The Carter plan calls for a family income cap of $140,000.
Instead of more tinkering with HOPE, Deal is calling for higher academic standards in K-12 to ensure that more students are academically ready for postsecondary education by the time they graduate. That’s a worthy goal under any circumstances, and especially given the history of grade inflation (and the heavy demand for remedial classes in college) back when the economy was booming and HOPE was flush.
But it’s lacking in specifics. Whether under the current academic and economic circumstances the state can get 250,000 more students not just ready for college but actually enrolled by 2020 is very much in question.
How much? The Georgia Student Finance Commission calculates that by 2015 — five years before Deal’s target — scholarship-eligible students will be getting less in HOPE benefits than they have to pay out of pocket.
Neither plan is really satisfactory. The governor’s wait-and-see approach looks economically unsustainable and utterly incompatible with his goal of more, rather than fewer, college graduates. The Democratic plan largely negates HOPE’s principal appeal, which has kept so many of Georgia’s best students in Georgia: It is based exclusively on academic achievement.
If anybody has a credible plan for getting more Georgians through college with less money, both the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly would surely welcome your suggestions.

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