Runaway Scholarships

With more young Americans than ever viewing college as essential, it's no surprise that an offer of significant help with college costs finds many takers. Still, some states have been shocked by the response to their innovative programs known as HOPE scholarships.

They started in 1993 when Georgia's then-governor Zell Miller proposed giving any young Georgian who finished high school with a B average enough money to cover tuition, fees, and books at a state college or university. Those who preferred a private school in the state would get a $3,000 stipend.

At latest count, more than 400,000 students have taken advantage of Georgia's HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) program. The yearly cost has climbed from $21.4 million to $189.2 million. Now some officials worry about the rising costs.

Yet these programs, in Georgia and more than a dozen other states that followed its lead, are politically secure. Efforts to tone things down and put restrictions on eligibility and cost bring an outcry.

So what we have, in essence, is the beginnings of a broad, state educational entitlement that could present statehouses with some of the same dilemmas that national entitlements give Washington: How to sustain the program, and how to prepare for ever-growing participation?

The funding for HOPE scholarships comes from various sources, depending on the state. Georgia and others tap the state lottery (whose temptations rip off the poorest citizens). States typically put no "needs test" on the scholarships, since they're awarded according to merit.

Florida uses lottery funds, too. The cost of its scholarships, $75 million when they began in 1997, could reach $150 million this year. At that rate of growth, the lottery won't be able to keep up. So lawmakers are weighing their options, including raising the minimum SAT score Florida uses as part of its eligibility requirement.

Other states plan to use some of the tobacco litigation money coming their way. Still others draw on general revenues. Most are having to rethink how they're going to proceed in the face of the huge demand.

That demand is not in itself bad. And the motives behind the scholarships are good - to encourage more people to go beyond high school, and, not incidentally, to keep their talents and skills in their home states.

But if state colleges are slowly becoming just an extension of the public educational system, then these states need to have a more firm funding plan. And they must prevent a couple potential problems: (1) high school teachers feeling pressured to hand out higher grades to make more students eligible for scholarships, or (2) colleges just raising their fees because more students have scholarships.

Hope has raised hope of higher educational levels for more Americans. But its sponsors need to get smart about where it's heading.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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