Georgia Northwestern Technical College student Rita Mayo decided to go back to school in 2010, almost 20 years after getting her high school equivalency diploma, but now she doesn't know how she's going to attend next semester.
Until now, students like Mayo in technical colleges didn't have a grade-point average requirement in order to keep a HOPE scholarship grant, but after Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill "Enduring HOPE" on Tuesday, they will need to have a 3.0 GPA to keep their awards.
"I'm 44 years old," said Mayo. "That's what I was counting on, my HOPE grant."
Mayo said her GPA at Northwestern Technical is about 3.2, but because she tried to go to school 17 years ago and didn't do well because of personal problems, her cumulative GPA is "very" low.
The scholarship and grant fund - paid through the state lottery - face a $243 million budget shortfall this year, and its $521 million in cash reserves are projected to run out by 2013 due to college tuition increasing faster than lottery revenues.
The HOPE overhaul is designed to save the scholarship for future generations, but Craig McDaniel, president of Georgia Northwestern Technical College, said this generation is the one that needs help.
ABOUT THE LAW
Most HOPE recipients would see their benefits reduced to 90 percent of their tuition costs.
The percentage would increase or decrease in future years based on the rise or fall of lottery proceeds.
Students who come out of high school with a 3.7 grade-point average, at least a 1200 Scholastic Aptitude Test score and are able to maintain a 3.3 grade-point average in college would retain a full HOPE Scholarship for tuition.
Other changes include a low-interest loan program for students who need more financial aid, reduced sales commissions for lottery retailers and limits on salary bonuses for lottery employees.
HOPE no longer would cover book costs or student fees under House Bill 326, which now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
Source: Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo
"It's this generation that is caught up in the worst downturn that we've had of the economy since the 1930s," he said.
Out of close to 6,500 students at Georgia Northwestern - where 93 percent receive either the HOPE grant or HOPE scholarship - 1,902 who receive the grant are in jeopardy because they fall below the 3.0 GPA requirement, McDaniel said.
For those students already enrolled, "We are just saying, 'Sorry, we are no longer going to keep that commitment,'" he said.
He added that he fully supports the legislation and that it's long overdue.
"I think students need to have an investment in their education," McDaniel said. "I never felt HOPE would be an entitlement program."
He suggested letting those students already enrolled graduate under the current requirements and implementing the changes only with new enrollees.
The college is working with students to find other financial resources and also will implement a student loan program for the first time, he said
For the most part, the bill had bipartisan support, but Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said in a news release she voted against it because of the 3.0 GPA requirement for technical college students.
"During a time when the state and our area are experiencing record unemployment, Georgians need financial assistance to gain work skills and complete programs of study," she said.
Since the inception of the HOPE scholarship in 1993, more than $3.5 billion in financial assistance has been awarded to 1.3 million Georgia students.
In Walker County public schools, guidance counselors are telling students to do the best they can, whether they plan to go to technical schools or regular colleges.
"We are telling high school students to keep their grades as high as they can and be prepared for anything at this point," said Gwen Gregory, guidance counselor at LaFayette High School.