Georgia is one of only two states in the country that does not provide state need-based financial aid to college students. But, during the legislative session that just ended, Georgia legislators took a crack at shedding membership in that infamous club.
The state does have merit-based aid. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship is a merit-based award that, along with its companion, the Zell Miller Scholarship, provides roughly $800 million annually to more than 175,000 students to support their college studies. HOPE has been a positive addition to the state, and has encouraged many students to stay in state for their postsecondary studies. But, HOPE hasn’t been able to dramatically increase the number of students enrolling in or completing college.
Actions during the legislative session signal a recognition that, to help more students earn their college degree, targeting state resources to those with financial need is warranted. With the passage of House Bill 1435 and the allocation of $10 million in next year’s budget to support it, Georgia took the first step toward providing need-based college aid.
HB 1435 creates a need-based financial aid program that will target students who have earned at least 80% of the credits needed toward their credential and demonstrate financial need. Students will be eligible for up to $2,500 to help them earn their final credits. And, students will need to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)—both to help administrators determine financial need as well as to ensure these students take advantage of federal funding available to them to further reduce funding gaps.
The Georgia Student Finance Commission, the agency that manages HOPE and federal funds for higher education, will administer this new program and is tasked with annual evaluations to help ensure it is being implemented as intended. Legislators estimate the initiative will support roughly 4,000 students across the state this coming year with the initial investment of $10 million.
HB 1435, which passed with broad political support and was signed by Governor Kemp on April 30th, creates a program very similar to the Achieve Atlanta completion grant initiative. At Achieve Atlanta, we are well aware of the challenges to college enrollment and completion. When we started our work in 2015, we projected that only 1 out of every 7 incoming 9th graders in Atlanta Public Schools (APS) would go on to earn a college credential within six years of high school graduation. When we looked at the root causes of this issue, there were many—limited exposure to postsecondary options; lack of support to navigate the college enrollment process in high school; confusing academic support systems in college; and many more. But one key challenge faced by too many students is limited financial resources to afford college.
Students in APS are not alone when it comes to college affordability. College costs have increased by more than 150% since 2000 with the average price reaching almost $25,000 in 2020. Research by the National College Attainment Network finds that only 23% of four-year public colleges and 41% of two-year public colleges are affordable.
This is why providing students with funding to offset college costs is at the core of the Achieve Atlanta approach. The Achieve Atlanta Scholarship provides generous funding to APS graduates with financial need, and each year hundreds of APS graduates enroll in college with our funds. And, we’re serious about focusing on the financial need aspect of the program—we don’t make students jump through a number of hoops or meet high merit standards to receive our scholarship. And, it’s renewable. The biggest hurdle is completing the FAFSA, which students should complete anyway to access federal grants and, if needed, low-interest loans, for college.
In our six years, more than 4,500 Atlanta Public School students have taken advantage of $40.5 million to pursue higher education through our scholarship. 677 Scholars have already earned degrees, and we expect to reach 1,000 by the end of this year.
However, even with all of that support, we still have students who struggle to pay their college bills. That’s why we launched a completion grant program in the spring of 2020. It provides a grant to students who have received their full Achieve Atlanta Scholarship but are within one to two semesters of earning their degree. Since its launch, we have awarded more than 200 students with grants of up to $2,500 each. We’re already seeing success: 83% of fall 2021 completion grantees earned their degree by the end of the term, a rate that’s held constant since we initiated the program.
We applaud the legislature for passing and Governor Kemp for signing HB 1435 and providing funds for the first year of aid. This is a first step to developing a state-wide need-based aid program for Georgia’s students. While the investment is small, it has the opportunity to make a big difference in the lives of the students who participate. We at Achieve Atlanta know that $2,500 for a student can be just what they need to cross the finish line. That’s good news for those students, and good news for Georgia.