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Impact of Ga. College-Aid Program Debated

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When President Clinton proposed a federal college-tuition tax credit earlier this month, he spoke of making higher education affordable and accessible for all Americans. But when he pointed to Georgia's HOPE scholarships as a model, the president may have muddied his message.

The three-year-old program, called Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally, rewards students from poorand wealthyfamilies, offering a financial incentive to boost high schoolers' performance and to attract them to in-state schools.

It is too early to say whether the scholarship initiative moves large numbers of high school graduates who might not otherwise go to college into higher education. Early research suggests that more than half the students who earn the scholarships upon graduation lose the aid because they post lackluster grades as college freshmen.

But it is clear the program has been a potent political tool for its chief advocate, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller.

Lottery Funds Used

The national acclaim awarded the program may be premature, critics argue.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions," said Kelly McCutchen, the executive director of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Atlanta.

The HOPE program evolved from Mr. Miller's first run for governor in 1990, when he was elected as a champion of a state lottery that would boost funding for education. Voters approved the lottery in 1992. While controversial at the time, the state's entry into gaming is now seen as potentially the greatest legacy of the two-term governor.

In many other states, lottery proponents have failed to deliver on their promise to use gaming proceeds to enhance education. But Mr. Miller insisted on earmarking Georgia's lottery funds for three programs: a voluntary pre-kindergarten program; technology improvements in K-12 schools; and the HOPE scholarships.

HOPE has been the crown jewel. The state has handed out grants to nearly 200,000 students so far. Students who maintain at least a B average in high school qualify for free tuition at a Georgia public college or university, or up to $3,000 toward tuition at a private college in the state.

High school graduates are also guaranteed tuition at one of Georgia's public technical institutes.

Those benefits appear to be stemming the "brain drain" from Georgia. Enrollments in the state's public and private colleges are breaking records, while universities in neighboring states report dramatically fewer Georgians in their classes since the program began in 1993.

At Spelman College in Atlanta, incoming classes now boast more Georgians than New Yorkers or Californians, a reversal of years past, said Victoria Valle, the director of admissions at the private, historically black college.

"We're keeping our best and brightest at home," she said.

Handout for the Rich?

While acknowledging these successes of the HOPE program, critics argue that the scholarships waste precious college-aid dollars on students who don't need the money. HOPE scholarships were originally given only to students whose families earned $66,000 or less. But as revenues from the lottery outpaced expectations, Mr. Miller persuaded lawmakers to lift the income cap to $100,000 and then eliminate it completely.

Most states target the bulk of their college grant money to low-income students. In 1994-95, for example, almost all of New York's $656 million in tuition aid was based on need, according to a national survey by the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs.

That same year, Georgia made needs-based grants and scholarships only a $5 million supplement to its $118 million in college aid, the survey found.

"There are a lot of wealthy people getting a free ride from the state," Mr. McCutchen of the Public Policy Foundation said.

Handing out scholarships to middle- and upper-income families has paid off politically for Gov. Miller, observers say. Exit polls from the 1994 elections showed that HOPE's popularity in suburban Atlanta counties helped the governor stem his losses in these Republican strongholds, according to Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster.

"Governor Miller would not have won re-election without the HOPE program," said Mr. Ayres, who worked for Mr. Miller's 1994 opponent, Guy Milner.

Strategists who have worked on Mr. Miller's winning campaigns have spread the news of HOPE's success, enticing Democratic candidates in other states to push lottery-funded college scholarships.

Incentive Seen

But lottery officials and HOPE backers say the program is not simply a political tool. It does what it originally intended to do, they say: provide an incentive for students to work harder in school.

"We're seeing this impact students' work in K-12," said Thomas S. Upchurch, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education in Atlanta. "Parents look up and realize that it's important that I pay attention to my child's homework."

Added William Flook, the scholarship program's assistant director: "The HOPE program was never intended to be a needs-based program. Its intent was to be a merit program and to encourage students to do better in school."

But policymakers also worry that HOPE's financial carrot for high schoolers has prompted some teachers to pump up grades and students to take easy, nonacademic courses to pad their grade-point averages.

In the 1994-95 academic year, more than 80 percent of HOPE scholars in Georgia's public university system returned to college after their first year. But about 57 percent of the recipients lost their grants when they failed to maintain a B average as freshmen.

To address such problems, lawmakers at Mr. Miller's urging toughened the requirements for getting HOPE money. Starting in 2000, scholarships will be awarded only to high school students who maintain at least a B average in core academic courses.

Raising the bar will probably reduce the number of students who get scholarships, Mr. Flook said. But, he said, "we're hoping that they will rise to the occasion and we'll have more students going over the bar."

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