Sen. Brown pushes HOPE limits, seeks family annual income cap of $150K

Georgia’s Senate minority leader proposed one possible solution to the dwindling HOPE Scholarship fund Wednesday: Only give it to the students who need it the most.

Calling for a “return to the original intent” of the state lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program, state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, pushed for the family income cap to be reinstated for HOPE eligibility as a way to keep the program afloat and ensure it allows the most possible students to afford college.

Brown’s suggestion comes after it was projected this week that despite continued record lottery tickets sales, the HOPE Scholarship fund will fall short $560 million in the next two years as the number of eligible students attending college continues to soar.

“More and more students are going to college, and it’s becoming hard to keep up with demand for the scholarship,” said Tim Connell, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission that runs the HOPE program.

When then-Gov. Zell Miller first created the HOPE Scholarship in 1993, only families making less than $66,000 per year could qualify.

After a successful first year, that cap was raised in 1994 to $100,000, and in 1995 it was lifted altogether.

Brown said he's pushing for a new income cap of six times the federal poverty level, which he estimated would be about $150,000 for a family of four.

“I think it’s a lasting solution if we want to save HOPE, and it’s in line with the original purpose of the scholarship, which was to make a college education more affordable for Georgia students who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” Brown said.

Brown said his plan would not affect students already receiving the HOPE Scholarship, but at the earliest, it could impact students applying for the scholarship beginning in July 2011.

Brown said he doesn’t think the income cap will discourage students who don’t qualify financially from making the B average required for the scholarship.

“Those students are probably already discouraged from performing well,” Brown said.

As for families making just above the income cap who have budgeted with HOPE in mind, Brown said they’d have to “find other plans.”

“There are other institutions in the private sector that could offer students merit-based scholarships,” Brown said.

State Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, chairman of the Senate Higher Education committee, said he disagrees with Brown’s proposal to reinstate the income cap for HOPE.

Harp said the original purpose of the HOPE Scholarship wasn’t necessarily to make college affordable for low-income families, but instead to reward hard-working students for their achievement.

“The HOPE Scholarship isn’t, and never has been, a need-based scholarship,” Harp said. “It’s been based on maximizing academic achievement by rewarding students who make good grades. That’s why the income cap was removed once the program started being successful.”

Harp said he wants to wait and see what happens before making any cuts to HOPE or deciding to reinstate an income cap.

“It’s not at a crisis point. We still have $1.5 billion in reserve money, and HOPE is too important of a program to ruin, and has been too successful so far, not to evaluate other options first,” Harp said.

Brown said he knows his plan to reinstate the needs qualification for HOPE may be unpopular with many, but that the scholarship’s current budget situation leaves no other choice.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some resistance. People have come to view HOPE as an entitlement program, which it’s not. We’ve got to find a way to make it sustainable, and this is the best way,” Brown said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.