AJC: Bill would fully fund tuition for tech college HOPE recipients

A bill making its way through the state House would tie the HOPE grant award to the cost of tuition at Georgia’s technical colleges.

House Bill 22, by Rep. Stacey Evans, would restore funding for tech college students that had been cut from the state’s scholarship program in 2011.

Evans, D-Smyrna, says the bill is a workforce-development tool that has gotten the support of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

A bill by Rep. Stacey Evans would full fund tuition for HOPE recipients at Georgia’s technical colleges.

Evans has long been an advocate for the state’s technical colleges and has previously attempted to restore full tuition funding for the HOPE grant. Her efforts two year ago resulted in a compromise that established the Zell Miller Grant scholar designation to pay the full tuition for the highest-achieving tech college students.

This latest proposal would eliminate the Zell Miller Grant distinction and pay full tuition for all HOPE tech college recipients.

The plan is estimated to cost between $21 and $23 million, which Evans says can be funded through the lottery’s unrestricted reserves.

Evans’ bill does not affect the HOPE scholarship, which serves students in the University System of Georgia and also fell under tighter restrictions as part of a 2011 restructuring.

Committee debate is set for Thursday on the bill.


Hillary Clinton Announces Georgia Team

Hillary Clinton has named over 60 Georgians to her Georgia Leadership Council, including Congressmen Hank Johnson, John Lewis, and David Scott and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. A full list of the Council can be seen after the break.

Congressman John Lewis:

“As our former Secretary of State, Senator from New York, and first Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person to be President of the United States. I know her heart. We need her leadership, not just here in America, but all over the world. She is tireless in her advocacy for those who have been left out and left behind. She is ready to be President on day one. Hillary Clinton has my wholehearted endorsement, and I plan to work and campaign for her to see that she is elected the next President of the United States.”

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams:

“I am honored to join the Hillary for Georgia Leadership Council. Secretary Clinton’s vision for a just, fair and economically robust nation reflects the values of Georgia. We are excited to welcome the growing ranks of volunteers and supporters to ensure that Hillary Clinton becomes the next President of the United States.”

Representative Stacey Evans:

“I am excited to be a part of the Hillary for Georgia Leadership Council, and am proud to lend my active support to Hillary because she and I share the same goal of expanding access to higher education.”


This legislator’s gift will matter

If you tried to find a state legislator who opposed the HOPE scholarship, you couldn’t do it.

The lottery-funded program that pays college tuition for Georgia students is one of the most popular laws ever enacted. Everybody loves HOPE and no one would think of eliminating it.

Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), like her colleagues at the Gold Dome, is a major supporter of HOPE, and she did an extraordinary thing this summer to demonstrate that support.

She donated $500,000 to the University of Georgia to set up the Stacey Godfrey Evans Scholarship for law school students who are first-generation college graduates – the first member of their family to get a college degree.

Evans was one of those students, raised in Ringgold by working-class parents who couldn’t afford to pay their daughter’s way through college.

She was able to attend the University of Georgia, where she earned economics and law degrees, by pooling money from a HOPE scholarship, a federal Pell Grant, and other sources of financial aid.

“My parents didn’t go to college, they worked in carpet mills when I was growing up,” she said. “There simply wasn’t a savings account for college and there wasn’t disposable income available for tuition.

“It was HOPE, it was Pell, I had loans – every kind of financial aid that’s available, I think I had a piece of it,” Evans recounted.

“I also worked. I just knew how much I struggled and how hard it was, and how many times I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay in school.”

“I don’t know how I would have done it (without the grants),” she said. “It used to be that you could work a part-time job, go to school, and graduate in four or five years, but you just can’t do it now.”

She established her scholarship fund to help promising students who come from the same humble circumstances that she did: high school graduates from small towns whose families weren’t financially able to send them to college.

“I asked, as much as possible, that it go to a student from the non-metro area – either rural Georgia or North Georgia,” Evans said.

Evans, a practicing attorney, is still in the early stages of her legal and political careers. She graduated from law school in 2003 and was first elected to the Georgia House in 2010.

The money for the scholarship fund came from her work on a whistleblower lawsuit against DaVita HealthCare, which operates kidney dialysis clinics. DaVita was accused of overbilling Medicaid and Medicare and agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying $495 million, most of which went to the federal government.

“That’s pretty much what I did for four years – that was more or less a fulltime job,” she said.

Evans, along with other legislators, is trying to restore HOPE scholarship assistance to the level where it once again covers the full cost of tuition, rather than just a percentage of it.

The Legislature revised HOPE in 2011 by reducing tuition coverage to try to make the program more financially stable. One of the changes increased the grade-point-average requirement for technical college students to get HOPE Grants, which subsequently caused enrollment to plummet by 45,000.

Evans proposed, and Gov. Nathan Deal later signed, a bill that returned the grade point average to its former level and enabled more technical college students to become eligible for HOPE assistance.

It’s an interesting coincidence that another $500,000 gift involving the University System was bestowed earlier this year.

The Board of Regents approved that amount as a bonus payment to Georgia State University President Mark Becker, whose compensation already exceeded $570,000 a year.

The $500,000 for Becker will nearly double his yearly pay. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Every person has the right to make whatever the market is willing to pay for their services.

That money, however, might better have been used to help financially struggling college students.

Evans’ scholarship fund, on the other hand, will enable bright, hard-working students to continue their college studies and earn an advanced degree. It will do this for years to come and provide opportunities for many students.

Which of those financial gifts will provide the most benefits for Georgians? I don’t think it’s even a close call.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.


On the Rise 2015: Stacey Godfrey Evans | 37

Attorney and state representative

As a child, Stacey Godfrey Evans found her professional role models among the doctors and lawyers she saw on television.

The daughter of Ringgold carpet millworkers whose parents divorced when she was a child, Evans says, “When you don’t grow up surrounded by people doing professional things, you are kind of left to TV. There are not a lot of professionals on TV. But lawyers are.”

Her family struggled financially, she recalls. “I knew that from a very young age. I remember the power being turned out, not having a phone. … I had my fair share of stepdads who weren’t the best men on earth. There was domestic violence in my house. … I witnessed my mother beat up and dragged through the yard more than I want to remember.”

Wanting to leave Ringgold and “do something big,” Evans put herself through the University of Georgia’s undergraduate and law schools on a HOPE scholarship, a Pell grant, loans, and wages she earned from waitressing. “Plenty of times, I didn’t think I was going to have the money to finish,” she says. She earned her J.D. in 2003.

A dozen years later, Evans, 37, has just closed the books on her four-year stint as second chair to partner Lin Wood in a massive whistleblower case against the nation’s largest chain of kidney dialysis clinics. Wood, Evans and co-counsel Marlan Wilbanks represented the whistleblowers in the case and in June secured a $450 million settlement from DaVita Inc. on behalf of their clients and the federal government. Whistleblower lawyers shared an unspecified contingency fee from their clients as well as additional legal fees and expenses payable to them under the terms of the federal False Claims Act.

Evans promptly donated $500,000 to UGA to establish a scholarship for law students who, like her, had to pay tuition and living expenses while struggling to remain in school. “If I can help take that off the back of even one student,” she says, “I’m really excited to do that. … I want students like me to know, ‘You are valued.'”

Evans, a Democrat, is also midway through her third term as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. Her Smyrna district elected her in 2010. This summer she was recruited by the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to challenge Georgia Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson. Evans turned the committee down.

“I reflected on why I am in politics in the first place, which is to make a positive difference in policy,” she explains. “I feel like I’m doing that in Georgia with my work in expanding tuition assistance in higher ed[ucation], and I don’t want to stop that work.”

Evans recently opened her own practice because she needs flexibility in juggling her legal work, legislative duties and family responsibilities and didn’t want to over-burden a partner. But she said she and Wood still share space and cases.

Wood calls her “a powerhouse destined for greatness in our profession” who has “amassed a record of accomplishments few can match in an entire career.” He said that during the DaVita litigation, Evans worked “super-human hours to completely and superbly fulfill each and every one of the very important roles in her life—wife, mother, lawyer, legislator, community activist and friend.”

“Simply stated,” he concludes, “Stacey laps the field in every category.”

Rep. Stacey Evans: ‘The HOPE grant should equal full tuition’

Four years ago, state lawmakers altered HOPE, the merit-based program that uses Georgia Lottery revenue to fund scholarships and grants for prospective college students, because the program was projected to go broke during the recession. The changes they made—reducing how many students qualified and how much they received—are now back up for reconsideration this week as lawmakers listen to casino proponents argue how legalizing table games and slot machines across the state could provide the state with up to $1.5 billion in additional funding for education, healthcare, transportation, and other needs.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, a Democrat from Smyrna who’s played an active role in shaping HOPE, is keeping a close eye on the study committee that’s weighing whether casinos should come to Georgia. In a recent interview, Evans chatted with us about how she would like to see the program retooled, the potential role of casinos in shoring up the state’s academic scholarship program, and why the state would benefit from providing some students with needs-based aid.

What changes would you like to see with the HOPE scholarship, which funds a portion of tuition for high school students who graduate with a 3.0 GPA; the Zell Miller Scholarship, which covers full tuition for those with a 3.7 GPA and a 1200 SAT; and the HOPE grant, which offers full technical college tuition for those with a 2.0 GPA?
The HOPE grant should equal full tuition, and right now it’s just a percentage. The grant is cheaper than the scholarship. It’s needed because we’ve got a skills gap in a lot of the areas where we’re missing the jobs, and unemployed folks are in areas where they can be trained at technical colleges. It’s not all of them, but it’s a lot of them. It’s a real good way to get students in the door, get them out, and get them employed. There’s a $21 million-$23 million price tag—all lottery funds. The lottery is healthy enough to do that with nothing changing.

The other legislation I’m trying to push hard—and I’ve talked about it with the governor’s office—is a bill that would allow the Zell Miller Scholarship to be given after students get to college. Right now, the only way you can get full tuition to college at a four-year school is to get a 3.7 GPA and 1200 [math and verbal] SAT score. You have one chance to win and that’s at high school graduation. Let’s say you, for whatever reason, didn’t qualify at high school graduation—most likely because of the SAT—but you have the grades to still get into a good college. If you get to school and knock it out of the park, and may even have a 4.0, you can never become eligible for the Zell Miller Scholarship.

I know the stated reason is that we didn’t want to give full tuition to students who were going to drop out and not finish, or lose it by making a 3.0 GPA—Zell Miller Scholars have to make a 3.3 GPA to maintain full tuition. But if you’re doing well in college, it doesn’t really matter what your SAT score is anymore. The bill would allow students who maintain the required GPA of the Zell Miller Scholarship to then become eligible for full tuition.

The governor seems open to the idea. I think he wants a higher threshold, like a 3.5 GPA [in college]. I’m open to that. The price tag on the bill as I have it drafted—assuming a 3.3 GPA—is about $36 million. That’s more expensive because that’s the scholarship. But it’ll help a lot of kids like me—if I was coming up now, I wouldn’t have qualified for the Zell Miller Scholarship because I had a 3.8 GPA but didn’t have anywhere near the required SAT. But I did really well in college. I would’ve benefited from the bill I’m proposing.

The lottery is healthy enough to do both of those things right now. Our reserves are about $350 million—75 percent higher than it has to be by law—just sitting there, ready to be spent. We know it’s growing by at least $60 million every year. If we can approve the casino bill, that could be an influx of several hundred million dollars more.

The way the effort to legalize casinos is linked to the HOPE scholarship seems like replay of the push for the Georgia Lottery in the early ’90s. In that sense, the debate seems to be as much about education policy as it is morality.
You’ve got to tell people what you’re going to do with this money. You’re going to have to tell voters what you’re going to spend that money on. Obviously, my bills are one idea. The idea of needs-based aid sometimes scares Republicans away. But you could talk about it differently. If you establish a scholarship for first-generation college students, you’re going to capture need because those kids are more likely to qualify if you did a straight-up needs-based scholarship. You could have HOPE be a set dollar amount that would be enough to go to an Albany State University or a Dalton State University without paying out of pocket. But if you were going to go to University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, you might pay more. That’s going to drive poorer students because they’re more likely to choose smaller schools so they can stay close to home.

Another idea is for HOPE to pay full tuition for someone going to a non-research university, and a certain percentage for those who chose to go to a research university. That would help those who need it the most without saying that’s what you’re doing.

Most of those students are also from metro Atlanta.
Exactly. If you go to voters and say we’re going to approve this casino referendum because we’re going to spend more money on HOPE, most people would be scratching their heads. A lot of people don’t realize that HOPE doesn’t cover what it used to. If you showed people how much money the lottery is sitting on—it’s a reserve fund, but it’s growing more than $60 million—people would say you don’t need more money. So we need to be specific: What are we going to do with this money? We may need to come up with another name—I want to call it PACT, Preparing for Advanced Careers Together—and it would allow for students pursuing two-year associate degrees to get full tuition if they agree to a certain number of mentoring and community service hours. It’s similar to the Tennessee Promise scholarship.

Some people have said we should spend the money on Medicaid expansion—not in the Obamacare sense, but on Medicaid—or transportation or something to help rural hospitals. I’m a huge advocate for spending it on those causes, but I don’t think the public would go for that, having just raised the gas tax to pay for transportation. And isn’t the state already supposed to pay for Medicaid? That’s a harder sell than kids.

Casinos were once a nonstarter. But with the lottery’s existence over the past two decades, has opposition in Georgia eroded enough for blackjack and roulette to be welcomed?
You now can gamble online. Certainly you have more arguments now than you had 20 years ago. You can go on a riverboat in Savannah and gamble. If you haven’t been in a casino, your neighbors have, or family members. MGM or another casino businesses would say their casinos are not just gambling—it’s entertainment, it’s Cirque Du Soleil, it’s shopping.

Do you think there’s an appetite for casino legislation on its own merits?
You need that second piece. I don’t think it would work as just a bill allowing people to come into the state and generate sales tax revenue. I could be wrong about that, but I think you’re going to need something that makes people feel good about inviting in what most people think of as a vice.

What resistance are you anticipating with your proposals?
There’s an attitude among conservative Republican lawmakers that a HOPE scholarship should be merit-based and not dependent on any kind of need. I don’t know where that comes from—I guess the idea of a perceived handout. But if you give a tuition dollar to a student who needs it, that student will become a productive member of the middle class and pay a lot of money in tax revenue they might not otherwise earn. It’s not fair to tag all Republicans with this, but there’s a school of thought that says, “I paid my way through and you can too.” But tuition is too high now for people to work their way through school and graduate in four years like they did back in the day. People who subscribe to that idea don’t have kids in college, don’t pay those tuition bills, and they’re thinking about a reality from a long time ago. There’s a hesitancy of letting government be part of a solution.

For those reasons, it’s safer for everybody if we say it another way. There are enough Republicans who think there’s a need for helping students—and who want to help the least of us—but don’t want to say it that way. You’re going to need two-thirds [of lawmakers’ support]. The conventional wisdom is that you need all the Democrats and a fair number of Republicans to get this done. You’re not going to get all the Democrats if this isn’t money returned to the community in need. Why would we do that?

What are you keeping your eye on with this week’s hearings?
The folks who have an interest in pushing the casino bill simply for business reasons need to think long and hard about what we’re going to spend the money on. If you don’t worry about that on the front end, I don’t think it’s going to pass. You have to spend that cash on something that people want. Otherwise you’re not going to get to the part where you have your business interests served. I’m not sure those dots are connected right now.

– See more at: http://www.atlantamagazine.com/news-culture-articles/rep-stacey-evans-on-the-future-of-georgias-scholarship-program-hope-should-equal-full-tuition/

Scouted for Senate run, Stacey Evans decides to stay in Georgia House

The path for the Rev. Raphael Warnock to launch a Democratic Senate bid just got a little clearer.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, a Smyrna Democrat considered a rising star in her party, said she turned down overtures from leaders to challenge Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Evans said in an interview she was “sitting here minding my own business” when she got a call from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee over the summer urging her to consider a run. She talked with her husband, consulted with advisers and trekked to Washington to talk with Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the campaign chair.

“I ultimately decided it was not something I could do. Not because I thought I couldn’t do it. But I reflected upon why I’m in politics at all: To be effective and to make good positive change,” said Evans, an attorney.  “And I feel like I’m doing that in my role now.”

Evans is the go-to Democrat in the House on the push to restore funding that had been cut from the state’s HOPE scholarship program. The Ringgold native is also the first in her family to graduate from college, and she used her share in a massive whistleblower settlement she helped litigate to create a $500,000 scholarship for first-generation graduates at the University of Georgia’s law school.

Evans plans to push for more changes to the scholarship the next legislative session, but she wouldn’t rule out a run for higher office in the future. “But as long as I’m effective, I don’t feel the need to jump into anything else,” she added.

Evans’ decision is likely welcome news for Warnock, the pastor of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church who is mulling a campaign against Isakson. He would become the first Democrat to challenge Isakson, who recently announced he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but said it would not jeopardize his ability to serve.

Another possible contender, former Rep. John Barrow, took a teaching position at UGA this fall, signaling he won’t run for office next year.

Scouted for Senate run, Stacey Evans decides to stay in Georgia House

Ga. state Rep. Stacey Evans donates $500K to UGA law school

State Rep. Stacey Evans has donated $500,000 to the University of Georgia’s law school to create a scholarship for first-generation college graduates, the state’s flagship institution announced Friday.

The first Stacey Godfrey Evans Scholarship recipient is expected to be named this fall.

Evans, a Cobb County democrat is a UGA law school alumna and the first in her family to graduate from college, completing an undergraduate degree in economics at UGA in 2000, and law school in 2003.

“I cannot — and do not want to — imagine my life without my degrees, and I know how close I was to being without them,” Evans said. “With this gift, I hope to take some of the financial stress off of the shoulders of bright and accomplished students,” she said.

Evans has worked for the past few years in the Legislature to restore funding that had been cut from the state’s HOPE scholarship program. Evans, a native of Ringgold and the daughter of mill workers, attended UGA on a HOPE scholarship.

“This level of contribution from a single individual has the power to change the lives of future students,” UGA Law Dean Peter B. “Bo” Rutledge said. “Leadership giving of this nature can make the difference between a students’ ability to attend law school or having to give up that dream.”

Evans specialized in securities litigation and has litigated cases involving Medicare fraud and defamation as a partner in the law firm of Wood, Hernacki and Evans. She began a solo law practice last fall.

Evans was one of the attorneys representing whistleblowers in a lawsuit against dialysis chain DaVita Healthcare Partners, in which the company agreed to pay up to $495 million to settle the case. DaVita has denied any wrongdoing. Her involvement in that case allowed Evans to make the contribution to help students at her alma mater, she said.


Opinion: We overcorrected HOPE Scholarship and students suffered. Time to reopen debate.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D- Smyrna, has made education a focus in the Georgia Legislature. A north Georgia native, Evans attended the University of Georgia on a HOPE Scholarship. She is now an attorney.

When the General Assembly began to tinker with HOPE four years ago in response to mounting financial pressures on the beloved program, Evans urged a sliding income scale to ensure students from Georgia’s poorest families continued to receive full tuition.

Her effort failed. Instead, the General Assembly approved Gov. Nathan Deal’s HOPE plan, which did the following:

•Full HOPE — now the Zell Miller scholarship — goes only to students with a 3.7 grade point average and at least a 1200 on the 1600-scale SAT.

•Students with a 3.0 high school GPA earn what I call HOPE Lite, which is based on available lottery funds. So, in 2014, HOPE Lite paid 79 percent of tuition for a student taking 15 hours at the University of Georgia. HOPE no longer covers any books or fees.

In its review of the impact of those changes, the AJC found most Zell Miller scholars come from affluent metro Atlanta schools. That finding makes sense as SAT scores correlate with the income and educational attainment of parents, which is why poor teens, whether rural or urban, don’t earn Zell Miller awards at the same rate as more affluent suburban counterparts.

(Recognizing there would be areas of Georgia where no students would qualify for Zell Miller because of the high SAT threshold, full HOPE now also goes to each high school’s valedictorian and salutatorian so at least two students in a county get it.)

With that background, here is Evan’s essay:

By Stacey Evans

Georgia and the country have a tuition problem.  Higher education has never been so expensive. Nationally, tuition has increased well over 300 percent since 1988, while inflation has increased roughly 85 percent.

State Rep. Stacey Evans

State Rep. Stacey Evans

And here at home, we’re not immune. Just two months ago, the Board of Regents voted to raise tuition up to 9 percent, for an average system wide increase of 3 percent.

There is no silver bullet in addressing the cost of education.  It is an expensive endeavor. And when tuition increases, so does the debt burden placed on the backs of students.  At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has introduced legislation that would offer debt relief to students by allowing them to refinance their loans and receive lower interest rates.

President Obama is also working to offer free community college for students that make a 2.5 GPA, which would also decrease the debt load thrust on students under our current system. These proposals are huge steps in the right direction, and I hope Congress will take serious steps to make them the law of the land.

Georgia has a rich history of playing a vital role in national education policy, as well as a rich history in finding solutions that fit our very unique set of problems.  And I think it’s time to address that distinct set of issues facing our students and their families.

Georgia has a vested interest in making sure the capital projects that are intrinsically associated with the “college experience” today, such as massive student and recreation centers, do not price out Georgians or strap them with debt. As the value of a HOPE Scholarship and Grant diminishes, I’m afraid that is what we’re facing.

It does not have to be this way, and we know that because in Georgia, it hasn’t been that way. Twenty-three years ago, Georgia voters approved the lottery because that money would go to students. Since the 2011 alterations to the HOPE program, the lottery has saved over and beyond what they intended and that number grows every day.

As tuition continues to rise, and the value of HOPE decreases, Georgia is creeping further away from that promise. At the same time, the lottery has saved roughly twice what they’re required to save statutorily.

As a legislator and a former HOPE Scholar who would not have been able to afford to attend the University of Georgia under the current HOPE structure, this troubles me. I grew up poor in the mountains of North Georgia, but I knew if I kept my end of the bargain and kept my grades up, Gov. Zell Miller and the state would keep their end, I could go to college despite our family’s income.

Addressing rising tuition must be done nationally and locally. And it is going to be hard. But, in the meantime, we cannot continue down the unsustainable path of passing the cost off to the student in the form of large debt. It’s bad for the student, their future, our economy and the state as a whole.

Georgia has historically been at the forefront of making a deal with students: if you work hard in high school and in college, we’ll help you cover tuition costs. That’s simply not the case anymore.  That bargain, while not wholly abandoned, slips further away every time tuition rises and we stick with the system we have.

As the President and members of Congress look for ways to address this nationally, I am looking at ways to responsibly reinvest in that bargain with Georgia.

The good news is that there are options. It is possible to renew this bargain and for the lottery to remain fiscally sound for generations of students. I wouldn’t recommend doing anything to jeopardize this. But when tuition increases and decreasing HOPE value is occurring while money above the required lottery shortfall reserves is accruing, we are doing something wrong.

We have overcorrected and, should we stay this course, we are doing so at the expense of a bargain that has become part of the fabric of Georgia.

Next session, I will put forward legislation that gets us back to the bargain we made with Georgia’s families because frankly I know they will keep their end of the deal. I know because I did. I never asked for a hand out, and neither did my family. We just did the work necessary to hold up our end.

Because of that bargain, I was able to go from a trailer on the Georgia-Tennessee line to the halls of the University of Georgia. That is what the bargain of HOPE did for me.  And we owe it to the thousands of Georgia’s students and their families to continue the rich tradition of holding up our end as a state.

Opinion: We overcorrected HOPE Scholarship and students suffered. Time to reopen debate.

Close skills gap for higher wages

Today we focus on workforce quality and the region’s technology sector. A statewide shortage of tech talent means major employers like Home Depot have to scramble to fill positions and often look to other states. A state lawmaker says the shortage shouldn’t come as a surprise, given cuts in support to technical colleges. An economic development official outlines efforts to address the skilled workforce shortage.

A recent news report described the problem Home Depot, one of Georgia’s great businesses, faces trying to fill skilled job openings in our state. Home Depot, unfortunately, is not alone in needing more skilled workers than are available in Georgia. It’s a problem many industries have faced in recent years.

In Georgia, 185,000 skilled professionals are needed yearly for our workforce. One of our best tools for meeting that need has traditionally been the HOPE Grant, a program that once provided full tuition to technical college attendees.

Following drastic cuts to the HOPE Grant in 2011, technical colleges lost about 45,000 students, roughly 25 percent of their enrollments. This represented a revenue loss of more than $136 million for a system charged with training a skilled workforce. Without students in the classrooms and support from the state, we can’t produce more skilled workers to fill jobs. And without tuition assistance, many students cannot afford to pay.

Since the 2011 cuts, my office has researched these issues. What is increasingly clear is that the loss of so many technical college students in less than two years is one of the main factors in our growing skills gap. We have not kept that information to ourselves.

It’s shocking and disappointing that Home Depot’s inability to fill its labor needs with Georgians came as a surprise to the state’s top economic development, education and workforce development officials. That Georgia faces a skills gap isn’t news to me, nor to our technical college leaders. And it’s not a surprise to Home Depot, NCR, Porsche and others struggling to fill open jobs.

Over the past two legislative sessions, I have sought to reduce the skills gap by helping to get more students into our technical colleges. In 2013, I worked with legislators to extend the HOPE Grant to students who maintain a GPA at or above 2.0. In this most recent session, I worked with Gov. Nathan Deal to create the Zell Miller HOPE Grant. It pays full tuition for technical college students who maintain a 3.5 or higher GPA.

While I am proud of what we were able to accomplish in a bipartisan fashion, we can and should go farther. My original 2014 legislation would have fully funded technical school tuition.

I was happy to work with the governor to take incremental steps to fix the failed reforms of 2011 so that more families will have better-paying jobs, and businesses will have a more skilled workforce.

But the gasps from the state’s top officials sadly suggest they are just realizing what anyone paying attention should already know: We aren’t doing nearly enough as a state to close the skills gap. I hope we will work with greater urgency to close that gap. It’s a way to put more Georgians to work for higher wages and help Georgia businesses thrive.


HOPE floats, Evans exults

One of Cobb’s state representatives has been fighting for years to restore the HOPE scholarship benefits that were stripped from postsecondary technical college students in 2011.

Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) said she was thrilled to watch Governor Deal on Tuesday sign House Bill 697, which will grant full funding to Georgia students who had been struggling to make ends meet with partial grants.

Click to read more: