State cutbacks to decrease HOPE scholarship for many Mercer students

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A bill recently passed in the Georgia Senate will cut HOPE scholarship payouts by $320 million. This overhaul means that many Mercer students will have to pay at least $400 more for tuition when they return to campus this fall – and possibly up to $1,200 more in the coming years depending on future lottery revenues.

The bill, passed in the House on March 1 and in the Senate on March 8, will reduce the amount of HOPE scholarship funds awarded annually to in-state students attending private universities such as Mercer by a minimum of 10 percent, from $4,000 to $3,600.

House Bill 326 is a part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to save the state’s lottery-funded education programs – including the college scholarships and the state’s prekindergarten program – from going broke.

To compensate for the HOPE fund’s currently estimated $400 million budget shortfall, the current bill will slash public and private university HOPE scholarships by 10 percent across the board for all in-state students with a 3.0 to 3.3 GPA.

Current public and private college students with a 3.3 GPA or higher will not be affected by the proposed cuts, however, as they will qualify for a newly-formed “Zel Miller” scholarship that retains all the benefits of the old HOPE scholarship.

Perhaps most significantly, H.B. 326 makes the amount of future HOPE scholarships dependent on the amount of lottery revenue generated, meaning individual HOPE scholarships could dip to as low as 70 percent of what they are now in the coming years if the funds are not available.

At public universities like the University of Georgia and Georgia State, students with a 3.0 to 3.3 GPA would only receive 90 percent of their tuition payments for the 2011-2012 academic year.At private universities such as Mercer – where HOPE only pays partial tuition  – students in the 3.0 to 3.3 GPA range would incur a similar 10 percent scholarship reduction from $4,000 to $3,600 for the coming year.

That means Mercer students receiving HOPE who have less than a 3.3 GPA would be required to come up with an additional $400 to cover the cost of the next two semesters, and could be forced to pay as much as $1,200 more for each of the coming academic years if lottery revenues don’t pan out as hoped.

Larry Brumley, Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications and Chief of Staff, said that HOPE Scholarship cuts are practical on several levels.

Enrollment in colleges across the country has increased, Brumley said, and the lottery revenue funding the scholarship could not keep up. Also, public institutions have received cutbacks in federal funding over the past few years, causing them to raise tuition. Because the HOPE Scholarship previously provided full tuition for students attending public universities, the lottery funding was also unable to keep up with their tuition spikes.

“It was just unrealistic to keep funding one hundred percent of tuition for public universities,” Brumley said.  “It’s practically not sustainable to tie the grant to tuition as these recent tuition raises have underscored.”

Brumley also cited a growing gap between HOPE funding for private and public schools. Because the scholarship fully covered tuition at public universities and paid for a fixed rate of private tuition, the public school funding increased while the private stayed the same, causing a great difference in aid between the two.

To qualify for the new Zel Miller scholarship and maintain the old HOPE benefits, students must have either maintained a 3.3 GPA in college, or enter in from high school with a minimum of a 3.7 GPA as well as a score of at least 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT.

Junior Jordan Locke said that although he knows it is a hard time for Georgia economically, he hates to see funding cut from education.

“We are effectively lowering the propensity of our population to excel in the future,” Locke said. “That being said, I think the cuts that were deemed necessary were done in a tasteful, democratic way.”

Brian Dalton, Senior Vice President for Enrollment Management, does not believe that the HOPE Scholarship changes will negatively impact freshman enrollment in the long run.

“With the continued state of the economy and the uncertainty about HOPE there has been some hesitancy on the part of students and parents on committing early,” Dalton said. The trend seems to be that potential students and parents will wait to see what financial aid package they receive before making a decision.

Brumley was equally optimistic about continued enrollment at Mercer.

“Students who want to come to Mercer are motivated by certain decisions…I don’t think $400 will make that much of a difference to them,” he said.

Dalton said the funding cut from public universities might actually be serendipitous to Mercer, as it could potentially encourage students who are on the fence about attending a public university to consider Mercer instead.

In the meantime, Dalton said the efforts to promote enrollment have not ceased. “We’re doing our best to emphasize the unique qualities of Mercer [and] why it remains a good investment,” he said.

Mercer President William B. Underwood said in a statement to The Cluster that although he regrets the fact that some Mercer students may lose part of their scholarship packages, he supports the House’s overall aim in passing the bill.

“It is clear that the current level of funding for HOPE scholarships is unsustainable. While I regret that many Mercer students will receive a $400 reduction in their HOPE grant, I believe that the governor’s plan is a reasonable and measured response to the financial crisis facing the HOPE scholarship program,” Underwood said.

The Georgia Tuition Equalization Grant will not be affected by passage of H.B. 326, which means that qualified Mercer students will continue to receive the GTEG funding of $750 per academic year.

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