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.
Funded by the state lottery, the HOPE Grant goes to students in Georgia’s 24 technical colleges. According to Mike Light, spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia, the state had 151,000 technichal students enrolled in 2013, with 28,278 of them graduating.
In 2013, 81,000 technical college students received HOPE Grants for 2-year certificate and diploma programs, Light said.
In last year’s session, Evans sponsored House Bill 372, which restored a requirement for HOPE Grant recipients to achieve a minimum 2.0 GPA, after a previous round of changes signed by Deal moved the metric up to a 3.0 GPA.
Evans said over the summer she returned to Deal’s office with more numbers to support her next initiative to restore the HOPE Grant to full benefit status instead of partial coverage.
Light said the bill signed by Deal on Tuesday will increase grant monies for 16,000 students. The estimated $7 million cost to fund the bill will be paid for out of lottery revenues and will go into effect in the next school year.
“We are delighted with this and what the governor and general assembly has done for us and our students,” Light said.
Evans rallies bipartisan support
House Bill 697 passed the General Assembly on March 20 with bipartisan support, a vote of 56-0 in the Senate and 169-2 in the House. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) was one of the bills co-sponsors.
An announcement in February stated Deal would support the changes, which Evans credits as the reason the Democrat-proposed bill made its way through a Republican legislature.
“The tipping point was the governor backing the plan,” Evans said.
Evans did a lot to tip the scales, using her off-season during the summer to visit technical colleges and learn what more needed to be done to fund postsecondary education.
When the cuts to the HOPE Grants were approved in 2011, Evans said they were done without much discussion about the impact.
“We had a mass exodus from our technical colleges … because these students are so price- sensitive,” Evans said.
About 45,000 recipients of the HOPE Grant left the system after the 2011 changes to the lottery system, Evans said.
Reinstating the 2.0 GPA requirement has already brought back around 5,000 students, and Evans hopes another 20 percent will return to school with the full funding reinstated.
Still, only students who have a 3.5 GPA or higher are eligible for the full funding, so Evans said she has more work to do to make sure all technical students have access to HOPE Grants.
“I remain committed to helping make higher education more accessible to more students,” Evans said. “I plan to continue my efforts to expand HOPE and other programs to make college a reality for more Georgians.”
Technical schools a commodity for Cobb
Technical students are often the first in their family to go to college, have less than $40,000 in income and frequently work a full-time job, Evans said. So being shy even a couple hundred dollars a semester can force a technical student out of school.
“There is just not a lot of wiggle room when any monetary amount changes,” Evans said.
Postsecondary technical schools fill gaps in Cobb’s work force for needed skilled employers, Evans said. When some HOPE Grants were cut, this meant fewer graduates were available for Georgia employees, who had to search out of state.
She said assistance to technical schools is the best investment a state can make because the programs are designed to teach students exact qualifications to “get a job immediately after crossing the graduation stage.”
The “get in, get trained and get out” focus is shared by Chattahoochee Technical College, said the school’s Vice President for External Affairs Jennifer Nelson.
Nelson said Chattahoochee Tech is grateful for Evans’ work, which will help students tackle the greatest challenge of raising funds in order to get in school and complete a program.
“She has been a wonderful advocate for technical college students,” Evans said. “I think she did a great job rallying the support.”
Nelson also agrees with Evans, saying technical colleges are an asset to Cobb.
“We hear a lot from employers today that they need employees who have specific skill sets,” Nelson said.
Chattahoochee Tech even customizes the school’s training to meet the business needs in Cobb and metro Atlanta based on feasibility studies, Nelson said.