ATLANTA-Thousands of working moms, laid-off factory employees and others who flocked to Georgia's 26 technical colleges for job training because of the recession could lose the HOPE grants that pay their tuition under changes the state is making to the cash-strapped program.
More than 75 percent of technical college students rely on the $2,700-a-year award to pay tuition, but 20,000 of them may lose it entirely because for the first time ever, they'll be required to maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep getting the money. The rest of the 140,000 students who get HOPE money will receive about 90 percent of their awards starting this fall.
"Everybody is panicked," said Mary Raterman, 55, a Gwinnett Technical College student who returned to school after 30 years as a homemaker because her husband was laid off two years ago. "We're an educated family just trying to do our best to keep our heads above water. Education is so important, but it's expensive."
The grant program often gets overshadowed by the HOPE scholarship, which pays for 110,000 students to attend the state's public colleges and universities. Those students have always been asked to maintain a B average to keep their award, but technical college students were exempted because many are working adults or GED recipients who struggle with classes.
Technical colleges are seen as engines of economic development in counties across the state, a place where workers can find a new career or get more training. They prepare students - roughly half of whom are older than 25 - to go directly into the work force as everything from welders and truck drivers to nurses and teachers.
The changes to HOPE signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on March 15 mean thousands of technical college students will have to cover $300 or more out of pocket each semester, which can be the difference between staying in school and dropping out for some students.
Deal made the change to the grants as part of a plan to slash $300 million in spending by lottery-funded programs predicted to go broke by next year. He argued that the cuts were necessary to save the program, which he said remains one of the most generous in the country.
Deal's plan slashes 20 days from the the school year for lottery-funded prekindergarten and cuts HOPE scholarships for all but the state's highest scoring students.
The changes apply to both current and future HOPE recipients and go into effect this fall.
The plan trims HOPE for students attending private colleges in Georgia from $4,000 to $3,600, and cuts book and fee stipends. The plan also gives students only one chance to win back their awards if their grades slip.
The law places limits on how much retailers can collect from selling winning tickets and caps the bonuses given to Georgia Lottery officials.
The HOPE bill passed quickly through the state House and Senate despite concerns from Democrats that it was unfair to poor and minority students.
Administrators for the Technical College System of Georgia said despite the cuts, they are relieved that HOPE grants will still be available to thousands of students.
"Georgia has done a great thing in having the HOPE program," said Josephine Reed-Taylor, assistant commissioner at the Technical College System. "We're very appreciative of the Legislature and the governor for doing what they did do."
Enrollment in the state's technical college system has skyrocketed the past decade, particularly in the past three years as the economy faltered. The student body swelled to more than 190,000 this year.
The new law cuts the grants to 90 percent of basic tuition, which is $45 per credit hour. But the grants will no longer cover extra tuition for specialized programs like trucking and law enforcement, which cost $233 per credit hour.
The changes mean technical colleges have to find other sources for financial aid for their students. Some are considering offering low-interest loan programs, while others are asking foundations to give private money for scholarships.
At Wiregrass Georgia Technical College in Valdosta, faculty members are offering extra tutoring to help students get their GPAs over 3.0 before the fall.
"Many of our students are supporting families, working full-time jobs, balancing a lot of responsibilities while coming back to school to improve their employability skills and prepare to go to a different career," said Wiregrass President Ray Perren. "It does create a burden."