Georgian students would receive up to $2,500 to help them complete their studies under a new program

Georgia lawmakers are again trying to help cash-strapped students, this time focusing on those who are about to graduate.

Senators are now considering House Bill 1435, which passed the House 171-3 on Tuesday. It would create a program under which public and private colleges and universities could give students $2,500 to help them complete their studies if students have already completed 80% of the course credits needed for their degrees.

Rep. Chuck Martin, the Alpharetta Republican sponsoring the bill, said the state has invested in students throughout K-12 and college, causing them to drop out for lack of a little help. Money is bad for the state and can flow from people who earn little while mired in student debt. Students who miss college are less likely to return and complete their studies than those who attend continuously.

“A very small amount of money – it could be $600, $800, $1,200 – would help them get through and get on the road to earning more and supporting their families and being able to to take on some of the debt they’ve accumulated,” Martin said. . “The only thing worse than graduating from college with some debt is not graduating from college with some debt.”

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Georgia is one of only two states that does not have broad need-based financial aid. Advocates have long called on Georgia to do more to help children from less well-off families attend and complete college, even if they don’t qualify for HOPE scholarships. Lawmakers created a need-based financial aid package in 2018, but never allocated money for it.

Martin proposes that the state divert $10 million from a student loan program that has high default rates and instead use it to fund scholarships. That would mean grants for more than 4,000 students statewide.

Students near the end of their college career may have exhausted the federal Pell Grants for Poorer Students deadline, which is six years for a four-year degree. Students may also lose eligibility for state lottery-funded HOPE scholarships if their grades drop. And HOPE scholarships alone don’t cover the full cost of attendance, even when a student is living at home, typically leaving a gap of $3,000 to $9,000. Georgia’s university system said it had 112,000 students with unmet financial need the last time it was counted.

“Most students need a Pell grant and the HOPE grant and perhaps a loan of money for living expenses in order to attend,” said Doug Tanner, director of aid finance at Valdosta State University. “So that would allow us to benefit students by covering what is commonly called gap funding – it means the difference between the aid they have and the costs they have.”

Tanner said closing that gap would keep some students in school and prevent others from having to take out unsubsidized loans with higher interest rates. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief last year for these completion grants.

Georgia State University started a grant program in 2011 with private donations from then-president Mark Becker and others. In 2018, the State of Georgia awarded over 2,000 grants, ranging from $300 to $2,000. The university says that from 2011 to 2018, 86% of more than 12,000 scholarship recipients graduated, most in two semesters. One of the secrets to the program’s success is that students don’t have to apply, said Jennifer Lee, senior policy analyst for higher education at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. Instead, the institution intervenes when it sees that a student is about to drop out.

The $10 million proposed falls far short of the roughly $800 million in unmet need in the university system alone, not counting technical colleges and private schools.

“The completion grants approach is one that says we’re going to prioritize the funds we have available for students who are close to graduating,” Lee said. “We just don’t have the amount of funds for unmet need.”

But it could be the start of something bigger. Lawmakers would have to review the program in 2025 or it would expire. Martin said if it worked well, lawmakers could expand funding and eligibility to cover more people.

To be eligible, a student should be a resident of Georgia and a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. They cannot have defaulted on their student loans, been convicted of a drug-related crime, or been in jail.

“It’s not a lot of money, but you’d be surprised. We’ve heard it will help people cross the finish line.”

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