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HOPE should be capped

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At the risk of pissing off most of the suburbs, much of intown Atlanta and a large percentage of CL readers, I'm going to go ahead and put it out there: HOPE wasn't meant for you.

Or at least it shouldn't be. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years you've been given every reason to think that the state's HOPE scholarship — funded by lottery sales and doled out to nearly every in-state student with a 3.0 grade point average — is an entitlement.

But here's the deal: Unlike 15 years ago, when the lottery's coffers were overflowing, that revenue is having a hard time keeping up these days with the demand for a free college education. The HOPE scholarship is overextended to the tune of $244 million this year and an estimated $317 million next year. At that rate, the nearly $1 billion in HOPE reserves will dwindle to less than $400 million in two years' time.

Lawmakers are batting around ideas for how to keep HOPE afloat. Among them: covering 70 percent of tuition as opposed to 100 percent, and permanently discontinuing HOPE money once a college student's GPA dips below 3.0 (currently, students can reapply for HOPE if they bounce back above 3.0).

The one idea legislators aren't seriously considering — the one that would spell political death but actually makes the most sense — is to limit the scholarship to those who need it most: students whose families can't afford college tuition.

In 1993, when HOPE made its debut, the scholarships were handed out to students who came from households earning less than $66,000. The following year, the year I graduated from high school, the income cap was lifted to $100,000.

The higher income cap qualified me for HOPE, which in turn tipped the scales in favor of the University of Georgia over Tulane. For the class behind me, the income cap was lifted altogether, and an even higher percentage of that year's graduating seniors took HOPE and remained in state.

In all, 900,000 Georgia students have received $3 billion in HOPE scholarship money since its inception. In addition to a free college education, there have been other positive side effects. Because HOPE gave high-achieving high school grads more incentive to stay in state, schools like UGA and Georgia State University became more academically competitive, and their reputations were vastly improved. And because fewer high achievers left Georgia — often staying here once they graduated from college, too — HOPE helped reverse the brain-drain so many states fear.

Of course, there have been unpleasant side effects, too. UGA and GSU are now less accessible to many students graduating from underperforming high schools, students whose schools or parents (or both) aren't always able to provide them with the support needed to compete with students from better districts.

Here's the rub: The parents of students from underperforming districts are far more likely to have bought the lotto tickets that subsidized the college tuition of students from better districts.

With HOPE money running out, it makes sense to reserve the scholarships for those B-average students who'd otherwise have a hard time paying for college.

And if there's HOPE cash left over after the scholarships are distributed to low-income students? Then let students from all income levels compete for it — in a lottery.

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