Georgia lawmakers are once again trying to help college students who have run out of money, this time focusing on those who are about to graduate.
Senators are now considering House Bill 1435, which passed House 171-3 on Tuesday. It would create a program where public and private colleges and universities could award $2,500 to students to help them graduate if the students have already completed 80% of the coursework required for their degree.
Rep. Chuck Martin, the Alpharetta Republican who supports the bill, said the state invested in students during K-12 and college, that it’s bad for the state if they drop out for lack of some money and people who earn little could leave while mired in student debt. Students who take time off from college are less likely to return and graduate than those who study continuously.
“A very small sum of money — it could be $600, $800, $1,200 — would help them get ready and on track to earn more and provide for their families and pay off some of their debts,” said Martin. “The only thing worse than graduating from college in debt is not graduating from college in debt.”
Georgia is one of only two countries lacking broad, needs-based financial assistance. Advocates have long called for Georgia to do more to help children from less-affluent families attend and graduate from college, even if they don’t qualify for HOPE scholarships. Legislators created a needs-based financial assistance program in 2018, but never provided any money for it.
Martin suggests the state divert $10 million from a student loan program with high default rates and use it to fund scholarships instead. That would mean scholarships for more than 4,000 students nationwide.
Students nearing the end of their college careers may have exhausted the state Pell Scholarships limit for poorer students, which is six years for a four-year degree. Students may also lose their eligibility for the state’s lottery-funded HOPE grants if their grades drop. And HOPE awards alone do not cover the full cost of attendance, even if a student lives at home, which typically leaves a $3,000 to $9,000 gap. The University System of Georgia said it had 112,000 students with unmet financial needs at last count.
“Most students will need a Pell Scholarship and the HOPE Scholarship and maybe a living allowance to attend,” said Doug Tanner, director of financial aid at Valdosta State University. “So this would allow us to benefit students by covering what’s known as gap funding — that is, the difference between the aid available and the cost they have.”
Tanner said closing that gap will keep some students in school and discourage others from having to take out unsubsidized loans with higher interest rates. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $5 million of federal COVID-19 relief for such completion grants last year.
Georgia State University started a scholarship program in 2011 with private donations from then-President Mark Becker and others. In 2018, the state of Georgia awarded more than 2,000 grants ranging from $300 to $2,000. According to the university, from 2011 to 2018, 86% of the more than 12,000 scholarship recipients graduated, most within two semesters. One of the secrets of this program’s success is that students don’t have to apply, said Jennifer Lee, senior policy analyst for higher education at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Instead, the institution steps in when it sees a student about to drop out.
The proposed $10 million falls far short of meeting the approximately $800 million unmet need in the university system alone, not counting technical colleges and private schools.
“The graduation scholarship approach says that we will prioritize the funds that we have for students who are about to graduate,” Lee said. “We just don’t have the amount of funding needed for the unmet needs out there.”
But it could be a start to something bigger. Legislators would have to review the program in 2025, otherwise it would expire. Martin said that if it performs well, lawmakers could expand funding and eligibility to cover more people.
To be eligible, a student would need to be a Georgia resident and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. They can’t be delinquent on student loans, convicted of a drug felony, or in prison.
“It’s not a lot of money, but you’ll be surprised. We heard that would help people cross the finish line.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.