MDJ: State Rep. Stacey Evans sponsors bill aiming to increase HOPE Grants for tech school

State Rep. Stacey Evans sponsors bill aiming to increase HOPE Grants for tech school

by Jon Gargis

February 14, 2016 10:00 PM

More than 1,300 Cobb residents attending classes at Chattahoochee Technical College would be among the students across the state who could benefit from a local legislator’s proposal to increase the award amount of the HOPE Grant.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 22, which, if enacted, would increase the amount of the HOPE Grant to the full amount of tuition at technical colleges in Georgia. Currently, the grant only covers a percentage of tuition at technical colleges depending on revenues brought in by the Georgia Lottery, which funds the state’s HOPE Program.

Evans said under her bill, no taxpayer dollars would be needed to fund the increase to the HOPE Grant award amounts. Its estimated $21 million impact could be covered by the Lottery’s unrestricted reserve fund, which has grown at an average of $63.6 million a year since 2011, according to a memo supporting the bill.

“It’s not nothing,” Evans said of the $21 million cost. “But in the grand scheme of what the lottery produces and what we spend in the HOPE Program, it’s a relatively small amount, especially when you consider the good that the bill does. The bill is going to help drive students into technical college, which means it will put folks into jobs that are open and need to be filled by properly trained workers.”

Evans said the bill would help the state fill its “skills gap.”

“We have Georgians who are unemployed and we have jobs that are unfilled, and the skills of the unemployed do not match the skills needed for the jobs that are open,” she said. “A lot of those jobs that remain open are those you get trained for in technical college. (This) would be a great workforce development tool.”

Georgia’s HOPE Grant is available to state residents working toward a certificate or diploma at an eligible college or university in Georgia. A recipient does not need a specific high-school GPA to earn the grant, but is required to maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 at certain checkpoints in their postsecondary studies to maintain eligibility. The HOPE Grant program is separate from the HOPE Scholarship, which has academic prerequisites and is offered to those seeking a degree.

Among those who earn the HOPE Grant are students attending Chattahoochee Technical College, which operates three campuses in Cobb.

Currently, the HOPE Grant pays $67 per credit hour, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission. A student at Chattahoochee Technical College pays $89 per credit hour, meaning the grant currently covers about 75 percent of tuition costs.

Taking into account mandatory fees in addition to tuition, the Hope Grant covers about 60 percent of the cost of attending the college, said Jody Darby, executive director of student financial services at Chattahoochee Technical College. For a student taking 12 course hours, the grant would cover $804 of the $1,341 cost of tuition and fees; at 15 credit hours, it would pay $1,005 of the $1,608 cost.

Evans said upping the grant amount to the full tuition cost would help residents who are most likely to be from families making less than $40,000 a year, who have already been in the workforce and who may be coming back for retraining after having another job or career and losing that job.

“We’re talking about folks for which that is the difference between them being able to stay in school or leave school,” she said.

Darby said increasing the payout of the HOPE Grant would help a significant amount of students at Chattahoochee Tech. The college’s enrollment for the spring 2016 semester stands at 9,252 students. Of those students, Darby said, 2,713 are on the HOPE Grant — about half of them, or 1,340, reside in Cobb.

“We have a large majority of our students who are using some type of financial aid. It’s definitely a selling point for our students that they have such great help from our state resources, and federal too,” Darby said.

Many more students statewide could see the benefits, however. Evans estimates that about half the enrollment in Technical College System of Georgia institutions receive the HOPE Grant.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, said he is in favor of the bill, though his affirmative vote on it should it reach the senate would be contingent on it including a fiscal note that shows an accurate cost of increasing grant amounts.

“I think we need to make sure we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Tippins said. “I believe very strongly in the technical college programs and the HOPE Grants, and quite frankly, they focus on the areas where we’re going to have more job growth in the state of Georgia in the future, so it’s a wise investment in economic development. But we do need to make sure we have an accurate cost estimate to do that before we vote on it. I think that’s just good practice.”

HB 22 passed unanimously out of the Appropriations Higher Education subcommittee Thursday, Evans said, and now heads to the full Appropriations Committee for its consideration.

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