The following is a guest Op-Ed submitted by Representative Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna). It originally appeared in the Macon Telegraph.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting Central Georgia Technical College President Dr. Ivan Allen and his incredible staff. We talked extensively about what Central Georgia Tech does for the region, and how the General Assembly can better support their tireless work.
Central Georgia Tech serves a 12 county region roughly 50 percent larger than Delaware. The region has a 9.9 percent unemployment rate, and yet Central Georgia Tech has a 95.6 percent job placement rate. Some of the counties they serve have unemployment rates almost double the average for the region. The school serves well over 100 different companies, including Robins Air Force Base, The Medical Center of Central Georgia, GEICO, and Perdue Farms. It is safe to say that this institution plays a major role in protecting and driving the volatile economy of Middle and south Georgia.
How do they do it? I heard one unrehearsed, repeated line that stood above other reasons: “We’re all about the students.” Only one other fact was just as apparent during my visit: The General Assembly must do more to support Central Georgia Technical College and other technical colleges in Georgia because they are facing a crisis that their passion for students alone cannot fix.
As the skills gap in Georgia grows, the General Assembly has cut HOPE to technical colleges, which was exacerbated by a loss of federal funding through sequestration, federal cuts to Pell Grants and deep state budget cuts. Because of this perfect storm, a large portion of technical college students can no longer afford to attend school, while many have left and many more will never begin. But of the multiple problems facing technical colleges, HOPE is what hit the students in their pockets the hardest.
The HOPE Grant, unlike the HOPE Scholarship, was intended to be a workforce development tool. And for two decades, it worked wonderfully. After the 2011 HOPE cuts, HOPE no longer covers full tuition at technical colleges. After 2011, the HOPE grant paid 93 percent of the fiscal year 2011 tuition rate of $67.50 per credit hour, or $62.78. Over time, technical colleges were forced to raise tuition, while HOPE covered less and less each year, essentially shifting the cost of the cut to the student. Now, tuition is $85 per credit hour, while the HOPE grant covers about 74 percent of that.
While this might not sound like much, for the average technical college student, a 28-year-old mother coming from a family income of less than $20,000-$40,000 a year, it might as well be $10,000. The HOPE cuts made it nearly impossible for these students to afford a full course load at TCSG schools across the state. The effect of the decreased access on TCSG was staggering.
In fiscal year 2011, before the cuts to the HOPE Grant, there were 145,499 HOPE Grant recipients enrolled in Georgia’s technical colleges. In fiscal year 2013, that number was only 81,990. In just two years’ time, our technical colleges lost 63,509 HOPE Grant recipients representing a loss of $136,911,577 in revenue. This was a decrease of almost two-thirds of the technical college system’s entire HOPE budget in less than two years’ time. This loss means the technical college system has less money to properly train Georgia’s future workforce.
This is a complicated problem, but there is a way to begin the process of mending it. We must once again fully fund the HOPE Grant for technical colleges. Georgia’s fiscal office estimates it would cost $25 million-$40 million to do so. A small price to pay for ensuring Georgia has a trained workforce to attract industry. This investment would mean that technical colleges, like CGTC would see an influx of students, and thus revenue through HOPE dollars to support faculty and equipment to properly train Georgia’s future workforce. Students that could once again afford school would trickle into the job market and slowly close the skills gap, thus supporting local economies once again. And we can do it without spending one single tax dollar.
Bottom line: the General Assembly should provide greater support to Georgia’s technical colleges. Central Georgia Tech is not unique; technical colleges across the state drive our economy, attract business from around the country to Georgia, and serve as gateways to the middle class for thousands of Georgians. But, they can only do so for so long before crisis befalls them. I believe that without the General Assembly stepping in to provide much needed assistance, the crisis will continue to brew. We can stave off that crisis. We can once again give HOPE to Georgia’s technical colleges and the industry they support. With bipartisan support for my proposal, which I am seeking, we can make this happen.