ATLANTA – Georgia's promise was simple: Get good grades in high school, get a free college education. More than a million students took advantage. Soon, however, it may be offered only to the brightest of the bright.
College costs and enrollment are rising in the state, and the governor is proposing to cut back on the first-in-the-nation HOPE scholarship, reserving the free ride for those with at least a 3.7 GPA, up from 3.0, and a 1200 on the SAT.
The rest would get some tuition help, an amount that could change from year to year.
All of it has high schoolers and their families scrambling to figure out how to pay for college, at a time of the year when they are busy deciding what school to attend next fall.
"Basically, HOPE was the reason I was staying in the state in the first place," said Maya Basu, 18, a senior from Cumming, Ga., whose older sister used it to attend the University of Georgia. "It's just going to make it really difficult."
Education experts and officials in the dozen states with similar programs are watching Georgia's moves closely.
"People are going to be looking to Georgia to see what can go wrong," said Will Doyle, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who focuses on lottery scholarships. "These programs weren't built to last."
Georgia created the program in 1993. At the time, Gov. Zell Miller used it to sell voters on one of the first lotteries in the Bible Belt. The scholarship would be funded with proceeds from the lottery system.
HOPE also inspired a national tax credit and helped convince voters in other conservative states to allow lotteries.
Since then, Georgia has been recognized as one of the most generous for college aid, including being ranked as No. 1 — or among the top three — for years on the National Association of State Student Aid & Grant Programs list.
The first year HOPE served about 43,000 students and cost about $21 million. At the time, it covered two years of college and was not available to families earning more than $66,000 a year.
Today, there is no income cap. It pays for a full degree, costs more than $639 million and covers 236,134 students.
About a third of students enrolled in public colleges and universities in the state use the program. It has paid for more than 1 million students to attend college since its inception.
Over the years there have been complaints that HOPE has been too lavish.
There is a running joke about so-called HOPE-mobiles — BMWs and Audis — that populate the campuses of UGA and Georgia Tech, purchased by well-off parents whose children are on HOPE scholarships.
The success of the program has also helped schools in neighboring states and second-tier Georgia public colleges.
As student performance rose, it has become harder to get into top-tier public schools like UGA and Georgia Tech, which have jumped in rankings. That has meant more Georgians at colleges like Auburn and the University of Alabama.
Eventually, the demand for the Georgia program and the rising cost of tuition at colleges and universities in the state outpaced the pool of money available in the lottery system.
State officials knew the shortfall would arrive, but have only tinkered with the program to make eligibility requirements more strict. This year, the state has had to draw from a reserve account to fund the program.
On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal went further, proposing an overhaul that would save some $300 million.
Under his plan, free public college tuition would be available to students with a GPA of at least 3.7 and a minimum 1200 on the SAT — about 10 percent of current recipients meet those standards.
Students with at least a 3.0 GPA would qualify for an award that would pay 90 percent of public college tuition. Those attending private colleges in Georgia would see their awards shrink from $4,000 to $3,600.
The proposed changes mean at least 200,000 students will see cuts to their HOPE awards and most of the incoming freshmen this fall will not get the full tuition their older siblings did.
Republican legislative leaders and some minority Democrats are backing the plan and moving quickly to pass it.
"We have crafted a plan that preserves HOPE for future generations of Georgians while maintaining one of the most generous scholarship programs in the United States," Deal said at a news conference.
The revamped program, however, would no longer cover extras, like fees, books and remedial classes.
Facing their own funding problems, other states have reduced or are planning to cut back on their scholarships.
Florida is making it increasingly harder to get a lottery-funded Bright Futures scholarship by increasing the minimum test score required and flattening the awards so they no longer pay for tuition increases.
In Arkansas, where the lottery scholarship has only been around for a year, high demand has lawmakers considering a $500 reduction in the award.
Lawmakers in West Virginia voted last year to cap how much a student can receive from the state's lottery-funded PROMISE scholarship, a program that previously paid full tuition.
In Georgia, some college students say the proposed changes would mean smart high schoolers will flee the state.
"I think it's sending a bad message at the very least," said UGA senior Arleta Cobb, 22, an international affairs and political science major. "It's going to discourage a lot of people."
UGA senior Alex Sevy said he turned down the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan to stay in state because of HOPE.
"HOPE is such a good deal," said a 21-year-old biochemistry major with plans to go to the Peace Corps. "If not for HOPE, they would have chosen somewhere else."
Associated Press writer Tom Parsons in Little Rock, Ark. contributed to this report.
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