When a Southern State Led the Nation on Free College

When a Southern State Led the Nation on Free College

By Nick Fouriezos



Because free college comes at a cost.

By Nick Fouriezos

A Democratic governor, flush with political capital, decided to make free college a reality. After wrangling with state lawmakers, a compromise was struck, uniting the warring factions of public and private interests. The measure ultimately helped middle-class students the most, much to the chagrin of its proponents. Yet the headlines that followed sparked national debate as experts declared it a model for educational reform.

This isn’t the story of the free-tuition plan passed by New York last month, but that of another ambitious program that aimed to greatly reduce the cost for in-state students. Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, created in 1993, revolutionized schools in the Peach State and now serves as a telling example of both the possibilities and pitfalls that await the Empire State.

It’s not only impacted one or two institutions, but all institutions.

Chris Carr, attorney general of Georgia

The appetite for free college was different in the early ’90s, and there was no progressive-led revolution helmed by Bernie Sanders. The champion of education reform in this tale? Zell Miller, aka “the establishment.” The former segregationist state senator had just clocked 16 years as Georgia’s longest-serving lieutenant governor. Despite his good-ol’-boy status, Miller realized Georgia needed to turn around dismal education rankings that had it in the bottom 10 of most national benchmarks. Free tuition became the centerpiece of his 1990 campaign for governor. “It was almost that any question he was asked, he would answer, ‘Well, I’ve got this HOPE Scholarship,’” says Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. The merit-based scholarship required students to hold a B average or higher, and began with a $60,000 family income cap, which was later expended to $100,000. 

Zell Miller

Zell Miller 

Source Public Domain

While everyone could agree on wanting better education, the divisive issue was how to fund it. Miller wanted a state-funded lottery, which required a constitutional amendment — Georgia, like many other states in the Bible Belt, explicitly banned gambling. Churches lined up against the proposition, worried that it would promote vice. As scholars noted, college students would have their tuition essentially bankrolled by the poor, often Black Georgians who disproportionately bought lotto tickets. The proposal easily passed both state chambers, but the statewide referendum was a harder task: On Nov. 3, 1992, just 100,000 voters tipped the scales — 52 to 38 percent in favor of the lottery.


From then on, the scholarship would be nothing less than wildly popular. The first ticket was sold in June 1993, in what would become a national record-setting $1.13 billion haul. Landing in student’s bank accounts that September was $360 million in scholarships. Stunned by the embarrassment of riches, legislators quickly scrapped the income cap and expanded coverage from two years to four. The plan’s initial goals of boosting high school performance and decreasing brain drain to elite colleges out of state were quickly realized. “The impact is just immeasurable,” says Chris Carr, a Georgia native who was an undergraduate at the University of Georgia when the scholarship was implemented and who continued on to law school with the scholarship’s help. Carr is now the state’s attorney general. 

Experts noted that minority and poor students were often shut out due to the scholarship’s high standards. “It didn’t change who went to college, it changed where they went,” says longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution education reporter Maureen Downey. Roughly half of the students lost the scholarship in their first semester, studies showed. The link was less a question of race than ambition: Students who took on more difficult majors, specifically in the sciences, engineering and computing disciplines, were between 21 and 51 percent more likely to lose their funding. 

Unilke HOPE, New York’s Excelsior Scholarship is entirely needs-based. Both, however, are essentially college-for-many models, despite headlines declaring New York as the first state to offer free college for all. The fine print, requiring that students be full time and on track to graduate in less than four years, would disproportionately disqualify poorer students, who often work to pay for living expenses. In New York, the tuition of many lower-income students was already covered by state and federal grants, leading to suggestions that covering living costs would be more effective. 

Shortcomings aside, states that create forward-thinking college plans tend to come out ahead. Georgia became the case study for Bill Clinton’s America’s HOPE program and was ranked the best academic-based financial aid in the nation for six years by education think tank NASSGAP. Other states copied Georgia, with four starting their own lottery scholarships before 2000. Residential construction along Georgia’s borders with its neighbors increased by nearly a third as parents moved their children — and taxable income — across state lines.

Today, Georgia is one of only three states to boast two colleges — Georgia Tech, seventh; University of Georgia, 18th — in U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 public university rankings. Former afterthoughts like Georgia State and Kennesaw State now have skyrocketing applications, plus new football programs. “It’s not only impacted one or two institutions, but all institutions,” says Carr. 

Zell Miller, now 85, could not be reached for comment.