With HOPE fully funded, how can Georgia students maximize their state scholarship options?

With the HOPE Scholarship now funding college tuition at 100%, many people wonder how long that will last and what the distinctions are between HOPE and the Zell Miller Scholarship, which also fully funds tuition at state public colleges but has more demanding academic requirements. We’ve taken a look at both scholarships and have collected some insights and advice from students, parents, and college funding experts on how to earn, keep and maximize each award.

What’s Happening

Moises Guzman Jr. is a 17-year-old, freshly minted honors graduate from Coffee High School in Douglas, a town in south Georgia with a population just shy of 12,000. He plans to study engineering and business at South Georgia State College this fall, with tuition fully covered by the Zell Miller Scholarship.

“That scholarship really means a lot to me because I don’t know how much money I would be able to raise for college without it,” said Guzman, whose mother works at a nearby cargo trailer manufacturing plant. His father is recently retired from poultry processing. Both immigrated to Georgia decades ago from Mexico. Guzman works at Taco Bell and chips in to help with household expenses. He will be the first in his family to go to college.

The Zell Miller Scholarship, the most prestigious Georgia Lottery-funded college award, requires at least a 3.7 high school GPA and a minimum 1200 SAT, or 26 ACT, score. To keep the Zell Miller award, students must maintain a 3.3 GPA in college. Guzman earned a 4.0 GPA in high school, taking several Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors courses, and got a 26 on the ACT. 

Moises Guzman Jr., a Zell Miller scholar from Coffee County, Georgia, will be the first member of his family to attend college. (Credit: Moises Guzman Jr.)

He’s among 22 students in Coffee County who earned the Zell Miller Scholarship this year.  

Many more students qualified for the HOPE Scholarship, which has a lower academic bar — a 3.0 high school and college GPA. Over the past decade, the HOPE Scholarship has covered only 80% to 90% of tuition at most of Georgia’s public colleges and universities. This year the Legislature appropriated an extra $47 million to fully fund HOPE for fiscal year 2024. Both scholarships, awarded for attendance at schools within Georgia, will now cover 100% of public school tuition in the upcoming academic year.

Guzman said he didn’t know much about what it takes to get either scholarship until his junior year in high school. That’s when he learned that both HOPE and Zell require students to take at least four “rigor courses,” which include advanced math, advanced science, foreign language or AP, International Baccalaureate (IB) or Dual Enrollment (DE) classes at local colleges before they graduate. 

Guzman talked to his high school counselor, who helped him develop a college plan, which included taking three dual enrollment classes at South Georgia State College — algebra, pre-calculus, and English— in his junior and senior years.

He also didn’t know about the difference between a regular high school GPA and the HOPE GPA, which is calculated using only grades from core courses including English, math, science, social studies and foreign languages. The HOPE GPA is what the Georgia Student Finance Commission uses to determine award eligibility. (So, art, PE, and driver’s ed classes don’t count).

Guzman also started working on the SAT his junior year, using free online resources such as Khan Academy and College Board, which offer test prep support and practice tests. He took the SAT twice and scored less than the 1200 needed to qualify for Zell. In his senior year, he took the ACT and scored a 26, the minimum score needed, on his first try. “I did struggle to get that test score,” he said.

Asked if he cares that HOPE Scholarship recipients now earn the same monetary award as Zell scholars, Guzman said, “Everyone here is really happy about it. This is a really small town and not everyone gets to go to college. If you do get one of those scholarships, it encourages you to go, and to be able to afford it. And for me, if I ever do lose Zell Miller, I’m glad I have a backup with HOPE that will still allow me to attend college.”


His sentiments are shared by many students and parents who’ve experienced or witnessed the struggle to maintain either the 3.0 or 3.3 college GPA needed to maintain the HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships, respectively.

Daryl O’Hare of Roswell is a professional tutor with two daughters who earned Zell Miller scholarships. One just graduated from Georgia Tech, and the other is in her third year at Georgia State. She said the pressure that both of her daughters have experienced to maintain a 3.3 GPA to keep their Zell scholarships has been “intense and stressful.”  

At Georgia Tech, the difference between 90% and 100% of a year’s tuition (at 15 credit hours per semester) is currently $1,026, or about $4,100 over four years. At Georgia State, the difference is $894 a year, or about $3,600 over four years. Room, board and fees can add an additional $10,000 to $20,000 per year, at both schools.

With a joint marital income of around $95,000 a year, O’Hare said the savings provided by the Zell Miller Scholarship in previous years has mattered to her family. Her eldest daughter chose to attend Georgia Tech over Northeastern University in Boston, which would have cost $45,000 more per year, all expenses considered.

“My kids knew that we were hyper-focused on making sure that they keep their scholarships,” said O’Hare. “So, you know, at Georgia Tech, there could be one professor who's just hard as nails. And if they gave you a C, you know, everything would be in jeopardy. So, I think that having the 3.0 for everybody at the 100% rate … I don't think that my daughters would say, ‘Oh, man, I worked so hard for that. And that's not fair.’ I think they would be like, ‘Wow, that would take some pressure off.’” (Both of her daughters later confirmed to State Affairs that they agreed).

Not everyone feels that way.  

Joshua Keenum of Woodstock has a daughter who graduated from Georgia Tech with a public policy degree this year, maintaining her Zell Miller Scholarship all four years. His son is a rising high school senior who is dual-enrolled at Kennesaw State University with hopes of attending Georgia Tech or another top research university. A math and science standout, he has the stellar grades, test scores and a resume full of AP classes, including math and genetics, to earn a Zell Miller Scholarship.  

Keenum, a manager at a chain of fitness clubs, would like to see his kids’ hard efforts rewarded with extra benefits.

“When you see the students who put in more effort and have higher GPAs, they should get greater compensation with these scholarships,” said Keenum. “Why do they need to work as hard if everything is going to be given to them at a lower GPA? Does that encourage more lackluster behavior? I don’t know, but I’m of that hustler mindset, where if I’m going to get a reward, I want to be good at what I do, and not just get by … A 3.0 just does not require the same effort.”

Leaders in the state House of Representatives argued along similar lines during the last legislative session, when they initially approved funding for HOPE at 95% of tuition cost instead of the full 100% that Gov. Brian Kemp had pushed for in his proposed budget. (After some haggling among House and Senate leaders in the closing days of the session, full funding for HOPE was restored, but only for fiscal year 2024). 

Helese Sandler, director of college counseling at Savannah Educational Consultants, a private tutoring and academic coaching firm, said she has “a little bit of concern that some kids striving for a 3.7 might now think, ‘I don’t need it.’ But my experience of high achievers is that they’re going after not just in-state scholarships, but all kinds of scholarships and financial aid at public and private colleges across the country, some of which are very selective. I don’t think it’s going to demotivate them at all.”

The fact that the HOPE Scholarship is funding 100% of tuition in the upcoming academic year “means that now, with a 3.0, college is going to be more affordable,” she said. “Those extra few thousand dollars can make a huge difference to some families.” 

That’s true for Jakera Lowman, 17, of Garden City, who’s heading off to Georgia Southern University in Statesboro this fall. Her mother, Leslie Lowman, who works as a custodian for Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, said both the HOPE Scholarship and the federal Pell Grant are “what’s going to make college possible for my daughter,” who plans to live on campus and study nursing. With HOPE fully funded, Jakera will have $500 less in tuition to cover next year and about $2,000 less in student loans when she graduates.

Semester Impact of Fully funding HOPE (Credit: Georgia Student Finance Commission)
(Credit: Georgia Student Finance Commission)

About three times more students win HOPE than Zell Miller scholarships each year. In the 2022-2023 academic year so far, the state has awarded 38,002 students Zell Miller scholarships and 111,329 students HOPE scholarships.  

Zell Miller scholars tend to gain admission to, and attend, the larger and more expensive colleges and universities in the state and thus win more tuition money. The average HOPE award was $4,359 per student this academic year, while the average Zell award was $8,110.

HOPE program spending for scholarships and grants in Fiscal Year 2022 - 2023

Why It Matters

Funding for the HOPE Scholarship and all HOPE tuition assistance programs can change from year to year according to the will of the governor and the General Assembly, noted Lynne Riley, who is president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission, and a former state treasurer and state representative.  There is no statutory guarantee that HOPE tuition will remain fully funded.

The HOPE Scholarship program was created in 1993 by then-Gov. Zell Miller, and the award covered 100% of tuition and the cost of books and fees to students who earned a B average in high school and maintained a 3.0 in college. The program proved very popular and helped drive increased enrollment at state colleges and universities.

The Zell Miller Scholarship was later created in response to an economic downturn. In 2011, in the wake of the ‘Great Recession,’ the Legislature reduced HOPE awards after lottery revenues failed to keep up with ever-increasing student demand. The Zell Miller Scholarship, with its more rigorous academic requirements, was introduced as a way to reward high-achieving students with full tuition while cutting the overall costs of the HOPE program.

Lynne Riley, president of the Georgia Student Finance Commission (Credit: Georgia Student Finance Commission)

“I was in the General Assembly when we had to make that call,” said Riley. “That was rough, but it was something where we had to react to the circumstances at the time.”

The Georgia economy is currently strong, and the Georgia Lottery, which funds both pre-kindergarten and higher education programs, boasts a surplus of $1.9 billion, with $1.1 billion in unrestricted reserves. But Riley said because of variable economic conditions, the commission’s primary message to high school students is to “aim high academically.”  

“Once you achieve Zell, you can rest assured you’ve earned a 100% award of a current year’s tuition,” she said. “So you protect yourself against tuition increases, and you protect yourself against any reductions in the HOPE award amount in future years.” 

Riley noted that students who qualify for Zell Miller scholarships “are highly attractive to our state colleges and universities and are very likely to receive additional scholarships and financial aid” from both public and private institutions.  

That’s the case for Moises Guzman, who was selected as a Live Màs Scholar by Taco Bell and won an additional $13,000 in scholarship funds. He said those funds will prove vital if he’s successful in transferring to Valdosta State or a bigger university further away from home in a couple of years. For now, he’s planning to save on room and board by living at home.

And for students who enroll in private colleges and universities in Georgia, there is still an immediate financial benefit to being a Zell Miller scholar. The award amount for HOPE scholarships at private schools is $2,496 per semester, while the award for Zell Miller scholarships is $2,985 per semester, almost $1,000 more per year.

The key to winning either of the HOPE program scholarships is to start early, in 9th grade, to develop a college plan, said Sandler. Students should make sure they’re taking the right mix of classes to qualify for admission to their target schools, as well as scholarships and financial aid.

A HOPE Scholarship will help Jakera Lowman of Garden City, Georgia, attend Georgia Southern University this fall. (Credit: Leslie Lowman).

Jakera Lowman did just that, taking several AP and honors courses while earning certifications in child care and cosmetology at Woodville Tompkins Technical and Career High School. “She set her expectations high and then exceeded them,” said her mother, Leslie.

Jakera said her plan was to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA throughout high school. By her junior year, with a solid B-plus average, she began gunning for Zell. She ended up just short, with a 3.7 HOPE GPA, and an 1150 on the SAT, earning her a HOPE Scholarship and offers from several in- and out-of-state colleges, public and private.

“She took on a lot, and there were nights when she would have anxiety attacks, worrying about her grades in her advanced classes, which seemed to get harder and harder,” said Leslie Lowman. "But I was her cheerleader and I always reminded her that she was trying her best, and that was good enough."

“The amount of work in the advanced courses can be overwhelming, but college is expensive, and I’m really glad I got HOPE, and I won’t have to go too deep out of pocket to pay for it,” said Jakera. 

Even if you shoot for Zell and miss out, maintaining a B or better grade average can also pay off in other ways, said Sandler.

Many colleges in Georgia and other states no longer require the SAT or ACT. But most colleges that offer score-optional admission do require a 3.2 or 3.3 high school GPA, she said. 

So students who don’t test well should still keep their grades up in hopes of gaining admission to such schools as Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Kennesaw State and Oglethorpe universities. Many of these schools offer their own grants and scholarships that factor in both academic merit and financial need.

A 3.0 or higher college GPA at the University of Georgia can help students qualify for the Georgia Charter Scholarship, a $2,000 annual stipend. Georgia State offers several renewable scholarships worth $1,000 to $3,000 annually to students who maintain a 3.0.

The Georgia Futures website, where Georgia students apply for college and financial aid, has links to dozens of public- and privately-funded scholarships that high school and college students with a B average can earn. 

What’s Next

When the General Assembly convenes in January, it will consider Kemp’s proposed amended fiscal year 2024 and 2025 budgets, which will likely include continued full funding of the HOPE Scholarship. Economists predict another healthy state budget surplus when the 2023 fiscal year ends on June 30, and the Georgia Lottery surplus remains robust. But a decline in state tax revenue collections over the past three months could have some legislators girding for another vigorous debate in the Statehouse over the level of HOPE funding for the next academic year.

Have thoughts on how lottery proceeds or other state education funds should be spent or managed? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected].


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Header image: Coffee High School graduate Moises Guzman Jr. and his parents Rocio Navarrete Gonzalez and Moises Guzman Sr., celebrate his $10,000 Live Màs scholarship at the Taco Bell restaurant in Douglas, Georgia, where he works. (Credit: Tacala Companies)