Deal pitches HOPE grant expansion for some tech college students

Gov. Nathan Deal outlined plans Thursday to expand a program that pays full technical school tuition through the HOPE scholarship program for students pursuing degrees in high-demand areas.

The governor’s proposal would expand the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant to include students taking courses in film set design, computer programming, precision manufacturing and certified engineering assistants. Deal plans to include the expansion plan — which would require the General Assembly’s approval — as part of his 2015 legislative agenda.

Expanding the program, he said, “will give us new people who are going to be trained and qualified for the jobs that are already available here.”

The grant already covers seven tech school programs, including commercial truck driving, diesel mechanics, welding, and early childhood care and education. Deal did not have a cost for the expansion. He included $5 million in the current budget for the strategic industries grant.

His plan is part of a broader remaking of the HOPE grant scholarship program for technical college students implemented during the most recent legislative session. Deal, in conjunction with House Democrats, expanded the HOPE grant to pay the full tuition of the highest-achieving tech students in hopes of increasing the ranks of Georgia graduates by 250,000 by 2020.

Despite the initiatives, some Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, say they don’t make up for cuts to the Technical College System made a few years ago. To prevent the HOPE program from going broke, lawmakers in 2011 approved a plan pushed by Deal to restructure it by increasing the grade requirements for tech students and reducing award payouts. The lower grade requirements were restored during the 2013 legislative session.

“Gov. Deal broke the HOPE grant and it took an election year for him to care about the devastation he caused,” Carter said in a statement released after Thursday’s announcement. “His failed reforms to the HOPE grant led 45,000 students to drop out of technical colleges in a single year. That has real economic consequences.”

The quarter of tech students who have left the system did so mainly because of a lack of financial aid, said Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna.

“The governor tries to pretend that if they are leaving, it’s because there are jobs,” Evans said. “We know that the rate the students have left the system is over 350 percent higher than the job growth rate, so they couldn’t be leaving for jobs. They are leaving because they can’t afford it.”

By Greg Bluestein and Janel Davis
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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