“Save the HOPE scholarship!” has become the rallying cry for those trying to bring large-scale casino gambling into Georgia. With the introduction of slot machines, blackjack tables, roulette wheels and even a horse-racing industry that is ailing everywhere else in the country but will somehow prosper here, gaming is supposed to inject hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the beleaguered HOPE program.
As its backers know, it’s a politically potent message. However, before we wander too far down that road, let’s review how we got here in the first place, because it might be instructive.
A quarter century ago, then-Gov. Zell Miller used the HOPE scholarship in much the same manner that it is being used today, to sell Georgia voters on a state lottery. The sales pitch came with a solemn promise: Unlike other states, Georgia would not use lottery money as a piggy bank to cut back its own, taxpayer-funded investment on higher education. This would be new money, additional money.
The promise has effectively been broken.
According to data compiled by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, since 2001 state leaders have slashed their per-pupil support for higher education by more than half. Adjusting for inflation, the state invested $14,947 on each full-time college student back in 2001; in fiscal 2015, it spent $7,031. That’s a per-pupil reduction of $7,916 in 2014 dollars.
And while state support has been quietly slashed, tuition and fees for attending Georgia public universities have soared. In April, the Board of Regents approved another 9 percent increase in tuition at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, with smaller increases at other schools. Since 2001, the cost of attending UGA has jumped by 260 percent, again adjusted for inflation. That’s roughly $7,000.
You don’t need a Georgia Tech calculus class to do the math: Other factors certainly play in somewhere, but when you’ve got a $7,901 increase in tuition and fees since 2001, and a $7,000 cutback in state aid per pupil over that same time frame, it’s pretty clear what’s happening.
The consequences have been inevitable. Lottery proceeds have grown, but not at anywhere near the rate needed to keep up with fee and tuition increases. As a result, HOPE can cover a smaller and smaller share of tuition with each passing year, and thus provides less and less political cover for state leaders trying to tamp down anger and frustration. And at a time when state leaders have finally begun to acknowledge the inadequacy of Georgia’s workforce in economic development, they’ve made attending public colleges and universities more and more difficult.
And according to federal data, almost 1.5 million Georgians now owe an average of $30,443 in student loans, giving us the highest average of any state in the country and trailing only the District of Columbia.
So if you want to know why state leaders are suddenly much more amenable to overtures from the casino industry, there you have it. They see it as a means to bail them out of a predicament of their own creation, and will no doubt use it as cover to impose further education budget cuts in the future.