News: State Policy & Advocacy

Need-Based Aid Comes to Georgia: Stay Tuned for Vital Details

Thursday, April 19, 2018  
Posted by: Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate
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Advocates for low-income students in Georgia scored an initial victory as the state’s legislative session came to a close last month. With the passage of House Bill 787, Georgia now joins 48 other states authorizing a student aid program distributing awards based on financial need.

While this is a crucial first step in the right direction, three equally important steps remain before the program can be implemented. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has to sign the bill, future legislators must fund the program, and the Georgia Student Finance Commission, an NCAN member, must set additional parameters for eligibility. Just one is included in HB 787: Only University System of Georgia students are eligible for awards.

There also remains the underlying and critical matter of application process.

States and students alike benefit when state aid applications align with the FAFSA, and Georgia students who complete the latter are automatically eligible for the state’s merit-based aid. Thus, it would be both optimal and sensible for the need-based aid program to follow suit.

“We feel strongly that to apply for Georgia need-based aid, students should be required to fill out the FAFSA,” said Tina Fernandez, executive director of NCAN member Achieve Atlanta, a nonprofit serving more than 2,000 students through scholarships and postsecondary advising services. “Every year, Georgia students leave millions of federal dollars on the table by not applying for the FAFSA. Requiring the FAFSA will enable the state to leverage federal and state dollars to reduce student loan burden and ultimately enable more low-income students to earn their degree.”

Ultimately, the finance commission is charged with settling these rules, but is not working under a statutory deadline. The opportunity to support traditionally underserved students in Georgia is clear, though, as approximately 16,700 students in Georgia would qualify for the award under a previous version of the bill, Senate Bill 405.

That bill outlined eligibility requirements that may have hampered some of the students it sought to support. Most notably, the bill included a provision requiring students who receive the aid to work 15 hours per week. That could overburden students who are already employed. It’s also riskily close to a 20-hour work week, which has a proven, significantly negative impact on completion.

In response to this provision, Achieve Atlanta wrote a letter addressing this potentially damaging requirement when the bill was being debated last month. The group specifically named Federal Work -Study (FWS) recipients as being particularly vulnerable to this provision. Consider the experience of Achieve Atlanta Scholars: about two-thirds of first-year students in the program participating in FWS indicated their work hours would fall short of this requirement.

“As a result, to become eligible for the grant as outlined in SB 405, these students would either have to increase work-study hours — which may or may not be feasible with program funding limitations — or obtain another job to work a few more hours that may be logistically challenging with course schedules,” Fernandez wrote in the letter. 

As the final rules for HB 787 are put into place, advocates must remain resolute in seeing that the final requirements and processes will indeed support low-income students.