If you tried to find a state legislator who opposed the HOPE scholarship, you wouldn’t be able to do it.
The lottery-funded program that helps pay college tuition for thousands of Georgia students is one of the most popular things the state has ever done. Everybody loves HOPE and no one would vote to eliminate it. It ranks right up there with mom, apple pie, and puppy dogs.
Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), like her colleagues at the Gold Dome, is a major supporter of HOPE. But this summer, she did an extraordinary thing to show her support that you won’t often see lawmakers do.
She donated $500,000 to the University of Georgia to set up the Stacey Godfrey Evans Scholarship for law school students who are first-generation graduates: that is, they are the first member of their family to get a college degree.
Evans was one of those students. She was raised in Ringgold, but didn’t have the financial resources to pay for college after graduating high school. She was able to attend the University of Georgia, where she earned economics and law degrees, by pooling money from a HOPE scholarship, a federal Pell Grant, and other sources of financial aid.
“My parents didn’t go to college, they worked in carpet mills when I was growing up,” she said. “There simply wasn’t a savings account for college and there wasn’t disposable income available for tuition.”
“It was HOPE, it was Pell, I had loans, every kind of financial aid that’s available, I think I had a piece of it,” Evans recounted. “I also worked. I just knew how much I struggled and how hard it was, and how many times I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay in school.”
“I don’t know how I would have done it (without the grants),” she said. “It used to be that you could work a part-time job, go to school, and graduate in four or five years, but you just can’t do it now.”
With the continuing increases in tuition that are passed by the Board of Regents every year, the cost of getting a college degree will only increase.
“That’s a very stressful thing,” Evans said. “If I can take that financial stress off them and give them the ability to focus on their studies so they can graduate without as much debt, I’m glad to be able to do it.”
She wants the scholarship to go promising students who come from the same humble circumstances that she did: a high school graduate from a small town whose family had never been able to send anyone off to college.
“I asked, as much as possible, that it go to a student from the non-metro area –- either rural Georgia or North Georgia,” Evans said.
Evans, a practicing attorney, is still in the early stages of her legal and political career. She graduated from law school in 2003 and was first elected to the Georgia House in 2010.
She got the money to endow her scholarship fund through her work on a whistle-blower lawsuit that accused DaVita HealthCare, which operates kidney dialysis clinics, of overbilling Medicaid and Medicare. DaVita agreed to settle the lawsuit by paying $495 million, most of which went to the federal government while $45 million was allocated for legal fees and costs.
“That’s pretty much what I did for four years — that was more or less a fulltime job,” she said.
Evans has been one of the legislators who are trying to restore HOPE scholarship payments to the level where they once again cover the full cost of tuition, which is not an easy task when it keeps getting increased every year.
The Legislature in 2011 revised HOPE so that benefits were reduced, with the goal of making the program more financially stable. One of the changes increased the grade point average requirement for technical college students, which cut off HOPE Grant assistance to so many of them that enrollment plummeted by 45,000.
Evans proposed, and Gov. Nathan Deal later supported and signed, a bill that returned the grade point average to its former level and enabled more technical college students to become eligible for HOPE assistance.
It’s an interesting coincidence that another $500,000 gift involving the University System was bestowed earlier this year.
The Board of Regents approved that amount as a cash bonus payment to Georgia State University President Mark Becker, whose compensation already exceeded $570,000 a year.
The $500,000 for Becker will nearly double his yearly pay. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Every person has the right to make whatever the market is willing to pay for their services. That money, however, is no longer available to help financially struggling college students.
Evans’ gift, on the other hand, will enable bright, hard-working students to continue their college studies and earn an advanced degree. It will do this for years to come and provide opportunities for many students.
Which of those financial gifts will provide the most benefits for Georgians? I don’t think it’s even a close call.
© 2015 by The Georgia Report