Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Ga. Plan Offers Key to Opening College Doors

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Lilburn, Ga.

When Brandy McClain turned 18, she exercised her right as an adult to buy a lottery ticket.

Even though her odds of winning were slim, she knew that at least 16 cents of her dollar would be coming back next fall--the part of her losses that will go toward a scholarship when she enrolls at a Georgia state university.

Now, President Clinton wants to give students throughout the nation the chance to underwrite their own college educations, not by hoarding lottery profits the way Georgia does, but by giving students or their parents tax benefits for paying tuition.

"We must make the 13th and 14th years of education--at least two years of college--just as universal in America as a high school education is today," Mr. Clinton said in his State of the Union Address last week, repeating a popular theme of his re-election campaign.

Now Congress must decide whether it will accept Mr. Clinton's proposal, which would cost an estimated $36 billion over the next five years--a lot of money at a time when both Republicans and Democrats are promising to balance the federal budget.

If Congress buys into Mr. Clinton's goal of enticing all high school graduates into college, the Georgia model the president is fond of citing would be a good one to follow, educators and students here in the Atlanta area say.

"We have a lot of kids who would not be thinking about going on beyond high school if it were not for HOPE," Mary Trice, the head guidance counselor at Berkmar High School here, said of the state scholarship program. "People don't think they can afford to go to school, but they can."

Brandy McClain, an 18-year-old senior with a sister already on a HOPE scholarship, will be one of more than 120,000 students using the state's lottery-fund scholarship program to pay tuition at Georgia's colleges, universities, and technical schools next fall.

This year, 97 percent of Georgians in the freshman classes at major state universities are on the full-ride scholarship, according to Glenn Newsome, who oversees the HOPE program as the executive director of the Georgia Student Finance Commission.

Ms. McClain will choose between the University of Georgia and Georgia State so she can take full advantage of the program, whose name is an acronym for "Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally." She considered schools outside the state, but since she could not redeem a HOPE voucher elsewhere, she and her family balked at the cost.

"I really wanted to go out of state, but it's better to stay in state because of the HOPE scholarship," she said.

A Fixture in Georgia

The 4-year-old program gives students with a B average free tuition at state universities and a $4,000 grant to help cover costs at Georgia's private colleges. It offers students with lower grades the chance to attend technical school without paying.

The requirement that students keep their grades up in order to qualify has increased interest in report cards among students and their parents, according to students and school officials.

"You have to keep up with your studies," said Adam Walker, a senior at Chamblee High School in DeKalb County. "It doesn't matter if you excel, just so long as you get the work done."

But students who don't make the grades can still benefit, guidance counselors say.

"They now have the option to get more training and get a better job," said Lorraine Hastings, Chamblee High's head counselor. She said 95 percent of the school's graduates will either enroll in college or technical school.

"I have many more kids get serious about technical school because it's free," said Mike Gluk, a counselor at Atlanta's Avondale High School.

While President Clinton wants to offer federal tax incentives, his program is not as simple as the lottery-backed grant that Ms. McClain, Mr. Walker, and their classmates will use in the fall.

The president's version of HOPE scholarships, which must be approved by Congress, would come in one of two ways.

An annual $1,500, nonrefundable income-tax credit for tuition and fees at any college would be available to families with incomes below $80,000. Students who maintained a B average and had no drug convictions in the first year could claim the credit again for a second year. That portion is aimed at paying, at a minimum, for classes at a junior college.

An annual tax deduction of up to $10,000 per family for college tuition and fees would be available for families with incomes under $80,000 that did not itemize on their tax returns. Unlike the tax credit, the deduction could be used as many years as the student attended college, graduate school, or job training.

Families with incomes up to $100,000 would be eligible for a reduced credit or deduction.

Worth the Price?

That is a steep price, say critics, when most people taking advantage of the tax breaks probably would attend college anyway.

"For each extra student encouraged to go to school, society would have to pay a $100,000 windfall to the 33 students that would have attended anyway," according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy Innovation, a conservative think tank based in Lewisville, Texas.

Conservatives have leveled similar criticisms at the HOPE program here ("Impact of Ga. College-Aid Program Debated," June 19, 1996.)

But the political popularity of both Georgia's scholarships and Mr. Clinton's program is hard to argue against. The debate boils down to the number of people who can see that the program might be useful to them, political observers and strategists say.

"There's not a family in Georgia that doesn't have a HOPE scholar they know," said Gov. Zell Miller, the Democrat who created the program and has reaped the political rewards of its popularity. "In Georgia, no politicians would dare say, 'Let's do away with HOPE scholarships.'"

If Mr. Clinton's proposal does become part of the tax code, Mr. Miller predicts it will become as indispensable for families outside of Georgia as his program has become here.

"Who can be opposed if your kid is going to get free college tuition if they have a B average?" said Laura van Assendelft, an assistant political science professor at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va.

Mr. Clinton first proposed his version of the tax credit over objections of several economic advisers. Polls showed the idea to be popular, according to consultant Dick Morris, Mr. Clinton's chief strategist when the president unveiled the program last June. Candidates for state office outside Georgia have also latched on to the idea as a way to court voters.

Mr. Miller can thank HOPE scholarships for his 1994 re-election.

"It's wildly popular both with students and their parents," said Charles S. Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. "This is what saved him. It reduced the Republican vote in the suburban counties around Atlanta where a lot of students are taking advantage of it."

While Georgians are happy, many national policymakers are questioning whether Mr. Clinton's program is a wise way to spend so much money.

"Working Americans need real tax relief, not just the so-called targeted tax cuts to help one group at the expense of another," said Rep. J.C. Watts Jr., R-Okla., who responded to Mr. Clinton's State of the Union Address for his party. "We all pay too much in taxes."

Warning on Tuition

Senate Republicans did not include the same large-scale tax incentives when they unveiled their education agenda in a bill last month. Instead, the GOP is calling for tax deductions for student-loan interest and creating college savings accounts in which interest would accumulate free of taxes.

Republicans fear that such widespread federal scholarships would give colleges an excuse to raise tuition, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said in an interview last week.

"We want to do it in a way that doesn't allow the cost to go up and soak up the assistance we provide," he said.

But Mr. Lott did not rule out a compromise that would give Mr. Clinton some of what he's proposing, especially if it would encourage students to attend community colleges or vocational training programs, he said.

While most higher education groups are endorsing Mr. Clinton's plan, the College Board trustees last week adopted a resolution urging that the federal program "not be allowed to substitute or reduce support for need-based aid," such as Pell Grants.

Regardless of what happens in Washington, many of Georgia's high school seniors are pleased at the prospect of a free tuition ride next fall.

Mr. Walker, a senior already reaping benefits from the HOPE program to pay for English classes at a local state university this year, has applied to the University of Georgia and the University of the South in Tennessee. But he is leaning toward staying in his home state so he can take advantage of the state aid program.

He would be glad to see Mr. Clinton find a way to cut his family's tuition at an out-of-state school.

"It would broaden the choices for people like me," he said.

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