Monday, February 7, 2011

From Zell to Fiscal Hell

“A college education should be more than an item of currency to be traded on the job market. To view it solely as an economic asset is to devalue it.” – Zell Miller, former Governor and US Senator representing the state of Georgia

I would like to welcome a guest blogger this week, my brother Christopher.  Chris has been actively involved in matters pertaining to public education for several years and has served as Chair of the Georgia House District 103 Education Advisory Board to Rep. David Casas.  A few weeks ago, the NY Times published an article titled, Georgia Facing a Hard Choice on Free Tuition.  I asked Chris for his view and here is what he wrote:

I have lived in Georgia since 1981. While the state has many things to boast about, public education is not one of them. For the past 30 years, student achievement has ranked at the bottom or near the bottom of state rankings. Every Governor comes into office vowing to make measurable improvements in education and most fall short. One significant exception was when Gov. Zell Miller fulfilled a campaign promise to institute a State Lottery and use the proceeds solely for public education.

The controversial Georgia Lottery law was written so that the funds could only be used for three specific purposes: Pre-K programs available to every family at no cost, technology for primary and secondary school systems, and the HOPE scholarship.

HOPE stands for Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally. The program provides that any student who maintains at least a B average will not pay any tuition when attending a post-secondary program in a Georgia public college. The HOPE Scholarship is based on merit, not means.

A recent NY Times article talked about students at The University of Georgia driving “HOPEmobiles” which are cars given to students from families with means. The parents don’t have to pay tuition, so they reward their kids with cars. But, to talk about HOPE as giving money to families who don’t need it misses the point. The principle of HOPE is that it rewards hard work. You give something; you get something.

The HOPE Scholarship program has had many consequences for Georgia; both intended and unintended. Over the past two decades, many of our top high school students have stayed in-state for college when they may have otherwise gone out-of-state. This has swelled the rolls of many of Georgia’s colleges, created a demand for new colleges to be built, and increased competition for admission to the top schools. The University of Georgia, for instance, once was accessible to average students. Now, it’s the hardest public school in the state to get into.

The demand for HOPE money has increased as attendance in Georgia’s post-secondary schools increased. Then, as the economy declined and the state cut the education budget, colleges have had to raise tuition and fees. The result is that HOPE’s liabilities now far outstrip its funding mechanism. The newly elected Governor, Nathan Deal, has had to propose some tough and unpopular choices. Do we increase the GPA requirement, reduce the percent of tuition covered, or institute means testing?

Attempts to duplicate the success of HOPE at the national level have fallen short. Tax credits for education involve complex IRS rules and only rebate you after the money is spent. A federal education loan is good but it has to be paid back. A recently released government report indicates that the total outstanding education debt held by Americans is greater than that owed on credit cards. Has the ease of getting these loans created another economic “bubble” waiting to burst?

Few would disagree that a well-educated work force is key to our future success in this global economy. While we used to view a high school education as the door to opportunity, increasingly that is not enough. Persons without a college degree, on average, have seen lower pay and higher unemployment. Few parents would discourage their children from seeking a college degree, but more are having trouble paying for it.

America has the finest post-secondary educational institutions in the world. That’s one reason why colleges are bulging with enrollment of foreign students. Should the best and brightest Americans be excluded because it’s too expensive? For once, the politicians in Georgia got it right. While HOPE will certainly change with the current economic realities, it’s not going away. Good students in Georgia will continue to have opportunity regardless of their means. The question is why other states haven’t followed Georgia’s lead.

Since 1993, the Georgia Lottery has generated $5 billion for education. So, go out and buy a lottery ticket and feel good about it. We shouldn’t be “HOPE-less”, we need to invest in the next generation.

- Chris Calia

Christopher Calia graduated cum laude from the University of Virginia and received his Masters in Mechanical Engineering from M.I.T.  He was a national Fellow in Nuclear Engineering and now runs a small, private software company.  He clearly values the education he was fortunate enough to receive, and is a frequent activist on legislative issues related to education.

In my last posting, I repeated the oft spouted phrase that governing is about choosing.  Clearly, we are all facing some tough choices which will create controversy and disillusion many Americans.  The only question is:



  1. Without a more indepth description of the GA Hope program it is a little difficult to get into specifics on this program. However, in reading what Chris has written, what is obvious to me is that "The Bar Has Been Raised" and subsequently that should probably trigger an adjustment in the requirements for entry and participation in this program. What was satisfactory when the program was first conceptualized is obviously no longer something that the State of GA can maintain, ie Social Security and State Retirement Programs.

    I would think it is obvious that it's time for the GA State Government to step in and Lead. Hence the answer to the question .......

  2. Hey ! If this is true.....B+ HSer's getting free college education......BIG Kudos' to the great state of Georgia.All this while NY uses Lottery $'s for everything, little going to the schools.....should have legislated it like Ga. I wonder how many other states have such a program??? You know, I have for 20 yr. or so talked of education for our kids to go beyond K - 12 th grade. Add two more years on for everyone,(Not at the HS,maybe Jr colleges) getting out with an associates degree or capable of running a business in the trades with skills.i.e.) Health Ed; Nursing;Computer/eletronics;electrician;plumbing;carpentry & so on....Then students could go on to Universities to complete a degree program in two yr. or come out with an MBA in 4. After thought on GA. Has anyone checked to see if grades are pushed up to get more kids to qualify???? Nice blog.....john

  3. Looks as if the program has had its share of problems.  As with most government programs that involve economics, there has been created an overly priced product that produces questionable results.  Because it is free or kids can get cheap loans, college costs go up, more kids get degrees than can ever get jobs, and we've got one more artificial bubble created by government meddling.