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The estimated cost of attending the University of Georgia for resident undergraduate students has increased by about 40% over the past 10 years. Some students from low-income backgrounds, who might already receive HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships and other financial aid, also turn to lesser-known scholarships from UGA to cover the total cost of school.

Some of these scholarships are part of the Georgia Commitment Scholarship program. Created in 2017, the need-based scholarship program encompasses several scholarships endowed by donors. A $30 million gift from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation intended for need-based scholarships kickstarted the program, which has awarded over 500 scholarships since its creation.

“I come from a small town, so going to UGA was just crazy for me. Knowing that I had a smaller network to fall back on and people to actually listen to me and talk to me, it’s been amazing,” said Danisha Walker, a third year from Eastman and recipient of a GCS scholarship.

Despite the GCS’s intention of providing more opportunities for those requiring need-based aid at UGA, the GCS program carries conditions that limit certain students from receiving its aid, such as being open to only first-year students.

Students eligible for GCS must also qualify for other need-based aid, like the Pell Grant. Some GCS recipients also qualify for merit based scholarships such as HOPE and Zell Miller, but even having a combination of these scholarships may not be enough.

The Office of Student Financial Aid screens for students who meet the program donor’s criteria and awards the scholarships to students with “the highest unmet financial need,” Rebecca Beeler, a former UGA spokesperson, said in an email in March.

As a result of its screening process, the GCS does not appear on students’ Free Applications for Federal Student Aid. Kati Hash, a second year psychology major from Decatur who received the scholarship, said she learned about it through emails from program coordinators.

“It really took a lot of the pressure off me and my family to pay for part of college financially and it really helped me focus on my academics. … It was great because I can actually focus on my college career instead of paying for college,” Hash said.

The UGA Foundation uses the Woodruff Foundation gift to match donations up to $500,000 for the GCS program. Over $80 million have been committed to the scholarship fund since January 2017, according to a UGA news release.

As of March 2020, student recipients received an average of almost $5,000 each from the program during the 2019-20 academic year. However, individual amounts may vary depending on a student’s specific scholarship in the program. This average amount was also seen for recipients in the 2018-2019 and 2017-2018 academic years.

As the program is based on donations, donors are able to create endowed need-based scholarships for the program with particular preferences, such as applying to students with a specific major or college or from a specific location in Georgia. That being said, some preferences for a scholarship have temporarily expanded beyond the restrictions of the program, though it is unclear why.

Narrow qualifications

Generally, few students qualify for the GCS. Students who qualify to receive the GCS must be Georgia residents and incoming freshmen who receive the Pell Grant — which is a federal financial aid program based on need demonstrated through one’s FAFSA — and attend UGA as full-time students, according to the Office of Student Financial Aid.

Students must also maintain a certain GPA and “Satisfactory Academic Progress” to keep the scholarship, which can be used for eight semesters but not over the summer. The minimum GPA a recipient needs to keep varies based on their award.

The scholarship only applies to incoming freshmen and not to upperclassmen, even for those whose financial circumstances may have changed to require need-based aid. The GCS also excludes transfer students by definition, which was about 1,200 students in fall 2019, as well as out-of-state students who pay higher tuition and fees.

For instance, Chloe Hamby, a 2019 UGA graduate, was selected by the Commit to Georgia campaign in her sophomore year to attract donors for programs such as GCS and a separate program called the Georgia Access Scholarship. However, while Hamby, who is a recipient of the Georgia Access Scholarship, began her college career with financial challenges, knowing she would have to take out loans, she was ineligible to receive GCS funds because of her non-first-year status.

“It’s really hard for people to even want to take on student loan debt to go to school at UGA,” Hamby said. “I know that my dad, when I was applying, was just like, you should go to West Georgia because you would not be in any debt.”

Khusbu Patel, a recent graduate from UGA and recipient of the Pell Grant, was ineligible to receive the GCS due to her status as a second-year when the program began.

“Other people are trying to come back in and they do need that money and they have the GPA requirements necessary, but they can’t have any other scholarships because they’re not a first-time student,” Patel said. “It’s kind of unfair.”

Not all costs covered

GCS scholarships can be applied to any college-related expense. Most GCS recipients have either HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships along with the Pell Grant, UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor said in an email.

HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships are merit-based and offered to in-state students who earn a certain high school GPA. Zell Miller recipients must also achieve a minimum SAT or ACT score, with in-state valedictorians and salutatorians exempt from the testing requirement.

While HOPE and Zell are focused on academic achievement, these scholarships primarily serve middle- and higher-income students, according to a 2016 study from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Given that GCS is geared toward students with a low-income background, some may not be eligible for HOPE or Zell and may have more tuition costs to cover.

“Data suggests that … lower-income students aren’t necessarily the ones that are getting HOPE or Zell Miller,” said Allen Hyde, an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “And that [it] seems to actually disproportionately benefit affluent — and the data also suggests — white students.”

Hyde said low-income students may have less opportunity to qualify for a merit-based scholarship because K-12 education is funded through property taxes. Low-income areas may vary in quality of education and less resources available to them before college, Hyde said.

HOPE and Zell aside, students must qualify for the Federal Pell Grant in order to qualify for the GCS. The Pell Grant can help cover costs, though even this can also be limiting.

According to the University System of Georgia, 20% of UGA’s first-time freshmen are Pell Grant recipients. However, there is a gap in cost coverage for Pell recipients who may also receive GCS — particularly those who are aiming to graduate in four years.

At UGA, Pell has a maximum award amount that is less than the entire cost of yearly tuition alone for the 2020-21 school year. The GCS only covers eight semesters, not including summers. According to USG, it takes on average more than eight semesters — about 4.4 years — for non-transfer students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from UGA.

This means students could potentially be left with semesters that are not covered by GCS and costs that are not covered by Pell.

Despite receiving the GCS scholarship, both Hash and Frazier have had to take out student loans, use Pell Grants and various merit-based scholarships to cover college-related costs. These expenses can include housing, meals and textbooks, among other expenses.

Preferences

Current GCS recipients praise the program for the resources it provides, noting how the program has helped them financially and provided networking opportunities and resources for how to succeed in college. However, some participants also agree the scholarship should be expanded.

The GCS is primarily funded by donors and matching donations of up to $500,000 from the UGA Foundation. Donors can also donate amounts greater than $500,000. Some of these donors include the Correll Family Foundation and the Cousins Foundation, which brought in donations of $5 million each.

The donors are able to create scholarships with particular preferences, but they are not requirements, according to the department of Development and Alumni relations.

“I look at it as there’s always somebody in a worse position than I am, so I might need certain financial funds, but there could be somebody who needs more financial funds than me, so expanding the program would be able to help more students,” Trevon Frazier, a second year biological sciences major from Decatur and recipient of a scholarship from the GCS program.

The Arthur M. Blank Foundation, created by Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, donated $1.5 million to UGA in 2017. Of these funds, $500,000 went to the GCS to create five scholarships with a preference for students from Atlanta’s Westside communities. This GCS scholarship was awarded to three freshmen students and two undergraduates that were not first-year students.

While this demonstrates that certain preferences by donors could expand beyond the scholarship as currently structured, the undergraduate students who received the first Blank scholarship have since graduated, and the Blank scholarship is now being awarded only to first-year students, according to the department of Development and Alumni Relations.

“We really need to rethink how we are awarding scholarships, and need-based needs to be more of a focus,” Hyde said. “Income inequality and class often are exacerbated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality. … There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for all people.”

While Alexandria Weekley, a sophomore studying psychology at UGA, is not a recipient of the program, she believes the GCS should broaden its eligibility criteria. Weekley ran into some issues during the shift to online classes, and her final grade in her Spanish class brought her GPA down.

As a result, she lost her HOPE eligibility, and her financial burdens increased. She said she believes need-based scholarship programs like the GCS could help lighten the load, especially during the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

“It absolutely should be expanded,” she said. “It’s not just first-year students who live in Georgia that are having issues with financial aid.”

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