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Alec Harden’s 3.8 GPA earned him a HOPE scholarship and admission to Georgia State University, but $10,000 in loans and a reluctance to take on more debt led him to drop out after his first year. Credit: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal Constitution

HOPE needed to be changed to prevent bankruptcy, but she said the legislation upended an original goal of the program: to make college more affordable for people who didn’t have the money to pay for it.

“The rewrite in 2011 was a horrible mistake overall,” she said. The Zell Miller SAT score requirement “ignores the realities of who does well on those tests and the ways you can do well on the test,” she said, citing the use of test prep and tutoring, which can be financially prohibitive for low- and middle-income families.

Related: Reality check: After four tough years of college prep, high school seniors grapple with gaps in financial aid

Since 2011, legislation has been routinely proposed to expand the program, but it stalls. In 2013, a piece of legislation was put forward to restore HOPE to paying for full tuition. In 2015, the Senate passed a bill that would require HOPE to pay at least $2,000 per semester, but the House never voted on it. In 2017, a bill was introduced that would base HOPE award amounts on the previous year’s tuition.

“Every legislative session we’re hopeful… that there will be some measures put in to place to kind of stop the bleeding and the student loan debt crisis, but it just does not seem to be a priority for state lawmakers,” said Brandon Hanick, from Better Georgia, a left-leaning advocacy group. “In fact, nothing has been done to restore HOPE to the pre-2011 levels. That’s obviously a huge component to the student loan debt.”

“It’s our money. It’s money that the state told people… we’re going to spend on education.”

The average Georgia graduate in 2015 carried loan debts of $27,754, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Meanwhile, the high cost of college continues to drive away students. Alec Harden entered Georgia State University in 2012 as a top student from Luella High School in Locust Grove. His 3.8 GPA not only earned him a HOPE scholarship, but other academic ones as well.

Still, by the end of his first year he had racked up $10,000 in loans. The prospect of taking on more debt gave him pause. In high school, he had worked part-time at a State Farm office. His old boss told him he’d hire him full-time and help him get licensed, so Harden dropped out after his first year.

“At least I’ve only ended up with $10,000 worth of debt instead of $50,000 or $60,000,” said Harden, 23. “The lesson for me is, don’t go to big universities.”

His wife, Elizabeth Harden, graduated from Southern Crescent Technical College in Griffin, and they have paid off her loans. It will take them at least five more years to get out from under Alec’s student loan.

Meanwhile, Searcy spends her days working for commission fixing and selling cellphones at a kiosk in the Peachtree Mall and trying to make a dent in her loans.

At her mom’s urging, she’s already tried to go back to school once, completing another year before withdrawing again. If HOPE were fully funded, her debt would have been cut in half.

“My mom was like, ‘You need to get back to school,’” said Searcy, smiling. “She’s seen how hard it is out here to get a job without a degree, even little jobs.

“I’m hoping I can save up money and go back in 2018. I know I need a degree…and I want to make my mom proud.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect percentage for the proceeds that a Georgia state senate bill would require the lottery to contribute to the HOPE program, and incorrectly stated that the estimated proceeds would go to HOPE in one year, instead of over three years. 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report in a collaboration with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Meredith Kolodner writes investigative articles and produces data analyses for higher education and K-12 stories. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at Inside...

Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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  1. I was poor and my parents hade little education. I went to the university with many sacrifices, working, dressing poorly, bad shoes, etc.

    Well, I made it. That was before. If I had to start again (“Born again”, ha ha ha)… I doubt I could make it without a loan… and then become a slave for life.

    A proposal: I think that the States should try this:

    “Make a contract with whoever wants to go to the university, amount those things, random checking for drinking and drugs. Then, if you finish and graduate, you will pay a portion of your income, deducted from your check, say, 7 %; so, if you make a lot of money, you pay more, if less, the sacrifice is less; and of course, below certain point, the percentage must drop to 5 % then 3 %…

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