February 1, 2017

Need-Based Scholarships Are Much Needed at UGA

City Dope

Photo Credit: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA

University of Georgia President Jere Morehead’s new need-based scholarship program, announced at his State of University address last week, is a welcome announcement, given the alarming level of inequality in access to higher education in Georgia. Last year, he introduced scholarships for students who are the first in their families to attend college, and Morehead himself was the first in his family to get a higher education. Clearly, he gets it.

But more needs to be done to level the playing field. The Equality of Opportunity Project—a massive national study on college students’ families’ financial backgrounds released last month—found that the median family income for a UGA student is $127,400. For comparison, the median family income in Athens is $49,485, and in Georgia it’s $57,458, according to U.S. Census estimates. To put it another way, only 14.9 percent of Athens families and 15.5 percent of Georgia families earn more than $125,000 per year, according to Census data, but more than half of UGA students’ families earn that much. Forty percent of UGA students’ families are in the top 10 percent of income. Only 11 percent come from families in the bottom 40 percent of income.

Are poor and middle-class children really dumber than wealthy ones? Of course not. But  affluent suburban school districts are not only better-funded than their rural and inner-city counterparts; they have the luxury of not dealing with all of the challenges often associated with educating children from lower-income families—hunger, behavioral and mental-health issues, lack of parental involvement, lack of access to technology. Children from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder tend to start out behind their richer peers.

When it was enacted in 1993, the HOPE Scholarship was need-based. Flush with more lottery cash than they expected, state lawmakers quickly abandoned the income cap.

Flash-forward to 2011, when recession-driven budget cuts and accompanying tuition hikes meant lottery funds started to run dry. Rather than bring back the income cap, Gov. Nathan Deal and Republicans in the legislature decoupled HOPE from tuition. Today, for most recipients, it does not pay for books or fees and only covers about 70 percent of tuition, creating a further barrier for students who lack means. But it remains a subsidy on luxury apartments and expensive cars for parents who could easily afford to pay to send their children to UGA.