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January 9, 2014

AP Interview: Deal details education proposals

ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday he will propose the state establish a separate scholarship within the HOPE grant program to provide full tuition for technical college students with a 3.5 grade-point average.

Deal, in an interview, said the new Zell Miller Scholarship in the HOPE grant program will help train the state’s workforce to meet critical employer needs. His office estimates some 16,000 technical college students would immediately qualify. Deal outlined a handful of his higher education proposals in an interview with The Associated Press in advance of the legislative session, which is set to begin Monday.

“All of us understand that one of the pressing needs we continue to have is technical college skills for attracting and actually filing the needs of existing businesses,” Deal said, adding he had heard of one company that recently wanted to expand but couldn’t find the workers they would need. “We want to make sure those problems do not persist.”

Deal is also proposing $10 million in state funds for low-interest loans made available to technical college students. In addition, Deal will ask that $3.6 million in state funds be set aside to pay for books and supplies of high school students dually enrolled in a technical college.

“We see this as a sound proposal that is certain to help thousands of current and future technical college students while also ensuring the future viability of the HOPE program,” said Mike Light, spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia.

Last year, more than 34,000 students graduated from the 24-college system with thousands more enrolled. More than half of technical college students are age 26 and older looking to gain or retain a skill that is marketable in today’s economy, Light said. The number of students in dual enrollment has been rapidly increasing — from roughly 5,000 in fiscal year 2012 to more than 7,000 in fiscal year 2013.

In 2011, the system saw a significant enrollment drop following changes made to the overall HOPE program.  At the time, Deal and Republican lawmakers argued the changes were needed to keep the program afloat for future generations.

The HOPE program is funded through lottery revenues and covers roughly 80 percent of tuition costs, depending on the institution. Deal said Wednesday that he plans to propose a 3 percent increase for the HOPE scholarship and grant programs to keep pace with tuition costs. That would be the same increase as last year.

Technical college officials have said a combination of factors, including the decision in 2011 to raise the qualifying grade-point average to 3.0 for HOPE grant recipients, resulted in a decline of several thousand students. Lawmakers decided last year, with the support of Deal, to lower the grade-point average back to 2.0 for the HOPE grant students.

Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans sponsored that bill and has another pending that would provide full tuition to technical college students who meet minimum grade requirements. She said she welcomed the governor’s proposal, but believes the state now has the resources to help more students.

“I think we can do more. I think we can afford to more, and we should do more,” said Evans, D-Smyrna.

As part of the 2011 changes to the HOPE program, the state cut the scholarship for all but the state’s highest-performing students and established a Zell Miller Scholarship that provided full tuition for high school graduates with a 3.7 GPA and a 1,200 on the SAT. It was named after the former governor who established HOPE.

Deal said it would cost a little more than $7.2 million to establish the new Zell Miller Scholarship in the HOPE grant program. His office said non-traditional technical college students, or those not enrolling straight after high school, could use the low-interest loan program to start and then qualify for the scholarship once hitting the 3.5 grade-point average.

Among his other proposals, Deal plans to ask for an additional $5 million for a special job training program that provides 100 percent of tuition to a technical school for students in the fields of commercial driving, practical nursing and early childhood education.

Deal said he wants to expand those fields to include welding, health care technology, diesel mechanic and information technology.  The total cost of the program would be $11.5 million under Deal’s current proposal.


Follow Christina Almeida Cassidy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP—Christina.


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