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Georgia's Momentum
The magic of a popular lottery-funded college scholarship program

By Doug Cumming
Atlanta, Georgia

Georgia Governor Zell Miller
Governor Zell Miller's HOPE scholarship program has helped thousands of Georgia college students.
Georgia Governor Zell Miller recently returned to the mountain valley of his boyhood to address a joint meeting of college presidents and others representing the state's public and private campuses.

It was a proud moment for Miller, whose widowed mama had hauled rocks from a creek long ago to build a home not far from the Brasstown Valley Resort and golf course where the higher education leaders were meeting. Now, as governor, Miller could take credit for the private development of the resort, having provided state land and low-interest bonds.

Given the surroundings - and the audience - this ex-Marine, hard-edged Democrat and once-and-future history professor, "in the twilight of his administration," as he put it, could not resist the temptation to look back and toot his own horn.

Then he launched into a recitation of his education initiatives, during two terms of office since 1991, especially those higher-education endeavors that have endeared him to this particular audience and won national acclaim.

He talked of his lottery-funded HOPE (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) scholarship program, which awards in-state students who have at least a B average their full tuition and fees at a public campus, or $3,000 at a private Georgia campus, regardless of family income.

He talked of the six-percent-average merit raises he has given university system faculty for each of the past four years, bringing Georgia near the top of the South. And he cited his massive construction programs on campuses, his system-wide instructional technology investments and his state-business alliances to give industry a bigger bang from their university system.

But the thrust of Miller's speech was neither nostalgia nor boasting. It was a plea to the next governor, addressed indirectly, to keep up the momentum of these last eight years. "For the job is far from finished," said Miller, who at the end of his term-limit in January will be stepping his cowboy boots into teaching positions at all three of his alma maters: the University of Georgia, Emory University and the private, two-year Young Harris College in Brasstown Valley near the North Carolina border. "I hope that no one feels that we can rest on our laurels or spend a single second patting ourselves on the back," he said.

The Democratic and Republican nominees contending to replace Miller have run against him for governor in the past, and lost. Now, in their campaigns heading for the November election, the two candidates both say Miller has done an excellent job with higher education, and they have no plans to change any of that legacy.

They are especially careful to show obeisance to HOPE, which has become politically sacrosanct since Miller lifted a $100,000 family income cap two years ago, making the program more popular with the affluent, whose children tend to get better grades, than with the poor.

They didn't always speak so highly of Miller. Roy Barnes, a fellow Democrat in the state Senate when Miller presided there as lieutenant governor in the 1980s, had opposed the lottery when Miller beat him in the 1990 gubernatorial primary on a shrewd gamble that Bible-belt Georgia was ready for a lottery. Barnes, running as a conservative, had tried to pin a Willie Horton-type case on Miller's service on the parole board 16 years earlier, but failed.

Guy Millner, the wealthy founder of a temporary-employment agency, who ran his first political race as the Republican challenger to Miller in 1994, felt the stings of Miller's bare-fisted campaign style.

The Miller campaign taunted Millner for not allowing photographers into his $8-million mansion, Windcrofte, the former home of Coca Cola magnate Robert Woodruff. Millner snapped back that he would let a photographer in his house when Miller posed in front of "that $25-million golf course he built with (taxpayer) money," referring to the Brasstown Valley Resort. "I paid for mine," Millner added.

Chancellor Stephen Portch
Chancellor Stephen Portch has moved the University Sysem of Georgia to the front rank of southern higher education systems since taking over in 1994.
But the important question is not what these candidates really think of Zell Miller - the bad things they said back then, or the nice things they say now; it is whether the next governor will have the same kind of symbiotic, fine-tuned relationship Miller has had with the 48-year-old British-born chancellor of the University System of Georgia, Stephen Portch.

It's hard to say, in this relationship, who calls the shots. Miller and Portch seemed to strike a complex bond in their first encounter, in March of 1994. The Board of Regents had selected but had not yet voted on Portch, then vice president of academic affairs for Wisconsin's university system.

Miller delayed his trip to the Atlanta Braves' spring training in Florida to receive Portch at the Governor's Mansion, and possibly preempt the regents if he turned out to be unhappy with the candidate. He met Portch in the library, and pulled off a shelf a first-edition volume by Georgia author Flannery O'Connor. Portch had written a chapter on O'Connor in a book that grew out of his dissertation at Penn State. "That told me he'd done his homework," Portch says, recalling the encounter.

Later, upstairs, the governor interviewed Portch about goals the younger man already seemed to have for Georgia's system, and asked how long these changes would take. Portch, knowing the governor was facing a tough reelection, wittily gave him an answer that didn't promise any election-year ammunition, but assumed Miller would be reelected: "Governor, it better not take any longer than four and half years." From then on, they were on the same team.

Miller, although feisty about pushing his education agenda and, lately, jealous about guarding its place in Georgia history, clearly is charmed by Portch. Miller once called him the best thing that ever happened to Georgia - "including Zell Miller."

But that's not to say Miller isn't still in charge. Portch's most profitable skill may be his ability to read political power, anticipate it, influence it and work with it. "He's the Wayne Gretzky of higher education, because he goes to where the puck will be, not where it is," said state Senator Jack Hill, chairman of the state Senate's higher education committee, borrowing from Portch's own renowned stock of quotations.

The new chancellor memorized many of the legislators' names and faces before hitting the ground, and calculated from those conservative Southern faces that he should immediately divest himself of his beard. Not only does he call on legislators around the state with a disarming mix of British wit and adopted Southern ease, he also checks in with the gatekeepers who keep an eye on the legislators.

Early on, for instance, he stopped by a funky little rib shack in the poorer black section of Marietta, outside Atlanta, to tap the wisdom of its owner, Winston Strickland. Strickland confided his prediction that Roy Barnes, then state representative from that area, would become the next speaker of the Georgia House.

Instead, Barnes is running for governor, so naturally, Portch recently dropped by the candidate's law office in Marietta to talk about higher education. And when Republican candidate Millner was ahead in the polls and refusing to debate in the Republican primary earlier this year, he naturally dropped by Portch's office to chat for more than an hour.

Guy Millner, Republican candidate of governor of Georgia
Millionaire, Guy Millner, Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, says he will continue Zell Miller's education legacy if elected.
Perhaps surpassing his skills with legislators is Portch's masterful touch with the 16 gubernatorial appointees comprising the Board of Regents, which is charged with setting policy and hiring the chancellor. "He's changed the regents," said Wayne Urban, president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors. "They almost work for him."

Hugh Hudson, who serves as Georgia's AAUP executive secretary, has his own reading of Portch's handling of the regents. Hudson says Portch, understanding the corporate mindset of most of the regents, has freed them from the day-to-day burdens of the system by way of the business model of vision statements, guiding principles and strategic plans. "If he has a singular gift, it is his ability to work with business people on the regents," Hudson said.

Arguably the most powerful chancellor since Georgia created a university system in 1932, Portch has been briskly tackling one difficult change on top of another. Conversion of the academic calendars from quarters to semesters? Portch put an end to years of study and resistance on the issue by just doing it. The status-envy of four-year colleges that had been agitating for years to become universities? Portch instantly made 13 of them into universities.

But while granting fancy name-changes that included "university," he and his staff in Atlanta held each one to its clearly defined mission, focus and master plan within the overall system's vision statement and guiding principles.

This was a stroke of genius, said Johnny Isakson, the Republican chairman of the state Board of Education that oversees primary and secondary schools. "They have them acting like universities," said Isakson, a key player in the state's education reforms since Governor Miller named him two years ago to run the school board, to neutralize friction that followed the upset election of a volatile conservative Republican school superintendent in 1994. "Like when you start calling a woman beautiful," Isakson said, "she starts thinking of herself that way."

Portch's success has changed what it means to be one of the 34 campus presidents, 15 of whom have been named since Portch became chancellor, with three vacancies to be filled. He rewards their initiative by securing special funds from the legislature, beyond the regular budget, especially when their proposals fit his vision of multi-campus collaborations that give more visibility to campuses lower on the food chain.

But he also holds the presidents in check, to varying degrees, by asserting system needs. Even the president of the University of Georgia, Michael Adams, while granted the historical prerogatives of that highly visible office, bristles at the friction he feels from the system-wide office. In an interview, Adams praised Portch but also complained that the chancellor and his staff, who have "no alumni, no football team and no campus," lack experience in running a university.

Before Portch's arrival, the presidents often ran against the system, or as if they were autonomous.

The president of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, for example, often expressed the resentments of South Georgia boosters against their perception of the regents' bias for research universities in the northern half of the state. They wanted a big-time football team and an engineering school. "It's public knowledge that I was reprimanded for being too aggressive," former Georgia Southern President Dale W. Lick told the magazine Georgia Trend recently.

Lick's successor, Nicholas W. Henry, also carried the banner for South Georgia boosterism as he presided over a staggering 70 percent growth in enrollment in the last 11 years. Under Portch, that growth has been capped at two percent a year, and when Henry stepped down this year, rumors flew that he had run afoul of Portch's insistence that presidents maintain a system-wide perspective and keep conflicts within the system family.

Portch will say only that, by mutual agreement, it was time for Henry to move on. Henry, asked to comment, said he agrees with Portch. It is a further sign of Portch's skill that he called Statesboro's legislators ahead of time to say he was letting Henry go and that he has since unveiled an innovative plan to offer new Georgia Tech engineering degrees through Georgia Southern and other campuses in the southern half of the state.

State Senator Roy Barnes
State Senator Roy Barnes, Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, says education will be a "number-one priority" if he is elected.
Be careful not to overstate conflicts between an individual campus and the system, Portch advises. Indeed, he makes the case that he is actually looking for presidents who are aggressive - but in ways disciplined by the system's needs and by hard data. "You only have a strong system if you have stronger institutions," he said in an interview. "So I'm trying to strike a balance of a disciplined system approach, but innovative, entrepreneurial campuses, either individually or collectively."

But if Portch has brought the various fiefdoms out of an almost medieval localism, he is worried now that the work is far from finished. In fact, serious new problems loom in the growing numbers of high school graduates who now aspire to college but are not academically prepared.

In the final days of this campaign season, Portch is galloping around like a young King Arthur to all 34 public campuses with the message that the war is not over; victory is not yet declared.

Portch's message echoes that of Miller up at Brasstown Valley - let's keep up the momentum. With the University System only halfway through its strategic plan and rising admission standards only beginning to sting, Portch is asking his colleges and universities to make their political interests known to Barnes and Millner. (A third candidate, Libertarian Jack Cashin, also is running for governor. Observers say Cashin will not win but could pull enough votes to affect whether Georgia gets another Democrat or its first Republican governor since Reconstruction.)

"I know crime is a popular issue," Portch told the faculty at Atlanta Metropolitan College during a recent visit to this struggling, two-year inner-city public campus. He implored them to talk to the candidates and make them add higher education to their agendas.

The campaigns, largely shaped by TV ads initiated by Millner's $167 million personal wealth, seem to focus instead on building more prisons and giving public school teachers smaller classes and the power to expel unruly students. "I can educate four or five here for the cost of incarcerating one," Portch said.

But Miller and Portch are having trouble getting their message out to a larger audience.
Higher education in Georgia may be a victim of its own success. Barnes and Millner have little to say about an area of state government that seems to be doing fine and offers no clear opportunities for either candidate to beat up on the other guy.

Related information
Georgia Higher Education at a Glance

University System of Georgia
(under control of the Board of Regents)

Nineteen four-year colleges and universities, enrollment (fall 1997 headcount): 159,988

Fifteen two-year colleges, enrollment: 45,401

Total public enrollment: 205, 389

Faculty members: 8,035

Operating budget (1996–97): $3 billion

Annual in-state tuition charges:
Research universities - $2,310
Other four-year campuses - $1,730
Two-year campuses - $1,180

Not part of the University System of Georgia

Thirty-three two-year vocational schools, under control of the Department of Technical and Adult Education, enrollment (fall 1998 headcount): 50,400

Thirty-five private colleges and universities participate in the HOPE scholarship program.
It's a soft September morning in Athens, at the University of Georgia, and sophomore Tom Ludlam relaxes before class in one of the rocking chairs on the classically columned front porch of his Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. A former high school football team captain and senior class president from a suburb of Atlanta, this 19-year-old is the very image of the easygoing gentleman-jock that has been the ideal of this flagship university for generations.

But wait. Ludlam is actually reading the classics, a textbook called "The Homeric Hymns." A Latin and science star who scored an unbeatable 1600 on his SAT, Ludlam had been accepted through early action by Harvard University when he decided in the spring of his final high school year to attend Georgia instead. Probably the hardest decision he had ever made, the choice was not just about money, Ludlam said.

Money, though, turned out to be important, he admits. For the son of a Prudential Insurance executive and homemaker, Harvard would be expensive. At the University of Georgia, Ludlam benefits from a combination of two merit scholarships that actually turn college into a profit-making affair—everything's paid for, including three summer trips out of the country, and he still will net a few thousand dollars each year.

While the larger of Ludlam's two scholarships is from the university's elite Foundation Fellows program, he acknowledges that he might not have picked Georgia if not for the more basic scholarship—HOPE.

The magic of Georgia's HOPE scholarship seems to defy imitation, though President Clinton has tried with his $1,500 America's Hope tuition tax credit, and several states have started or are considering lottery-funded merit scholarships for college.

Georgia's program, in all its details, seems a kind of jury-rigged contraption. Eligible students in university system schools get full tuition and fees; HOPE students in Georgia's private colleges like Emory University or Morehouse College get $3,000, plus an equalization grant of $1,000, toward tuition. Those students need a B average in academic subjects from high school, and must maintain it each year of college to retain HOPE. Students in non-degree programs, primarily in the state's 33 two-year technical schools, get HOPE grants regardless of their grades.

For all this complexity, HOPE has a simple message that Georgia residents have internalized - grades matter. Worries that this dollars-for-grades approach would pressure teachers to inflate grades have not been bourne out, at least not at the high school level.

The Georgia Council for School Performance, a research office at Georgia State University, by tracking grades with SAT scores, has found less grade inflation among HOPE students than among their peers nationally, perhaps because students are studying harder in academic courses to win the HOPE money.

No one doubts that HOPE has reversed a brain-drain by holding on to students like Tom Ludlam. As a result, much better students are attending - and even getting rejected by - the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the system's academic giants.

The University of Georgia's current freshman class has a projected average SAT score of 1,190, which is about 100 points higher than it was when HOPE started. Atlanta's premiere prep school, The Westminster Schools, sends about 50 percent more graduates to the university than it did before HOPE, and Ludlam's Walton High, one of the highest-achieving public high schools in the state, sent 131 graduates to Georgia last year, more than any other metropolitan Atlanta high school.
The result of all this is a university where parties still rage and the Georgia Bulldogs football team still wins, but where smarter students wear the smiles of customers who have just won free merchandise. "This is the best decision I ever made," says Corey Gill, a 19-year-old foundation fellow, HOPE scholar and fraternity brother with Ludlam who turned down Duke and the University of Virginia for the University of Georgia.

Ludlam said the same goes for him. He had tried to explain to Harvard officials about HOPE and the fellowship, but "they didn't quite understand."

This is the sunny side of HOPE, the reason neither gubernatorial candidate will say a disparaging word about this huge benefit with no income cap. But there are problems beneath the surface, even deeper than the fact that HOPE depends on the gaming impulses of people who, as Garrison Keillor has said, didn't do very well at math.

While the quality of freshmen at the University of Georgia is rising, it is falling in other parts of the system, if you count students who do not necessarily enter the system in the fall after high school. Counting all freshmen entering at various times of the year, the SAT average for the university system has been stagnant for the last ten years at 981, partly reflecting a steady increase in college attendance.

The challenge of the next governor, as Portch and Miller know, is to accommodate even greater increases in enrollment while continuing to implement higher standards. Starting with freshmen entering in 2001, the regents are requiring a new fourth year of high school math and a minimum score at each campus on what is being called "the freshman index," a combination of grade point average and SAT. Most students needing remedial work, an embarrassing 43 percent of freshmen systemwide four years ago, will be shunted into the two-year colleges by 2001.

What will happen to the percentage of minority students, many of whom lag behind in preparation for college? Will the rising standards dash the hopes of many HOPE recipients, nearly half of whom already lose their scholarships after a year in the university system? (After a year's worth of credit hours, and at equal intervals thereafter, college grades are calculated to determine the B average needed to remain on scholarship.) Will this fast-growing population knocking on the college door in Georgia be any better prepared than those who entered the university system in the early '90s, when only 35 percent graduated within five years?

Students at the University of Georgia
Corey Gill (left) and Tom Ludlam turned down Duke, Harvard and the University of Virginia to attend the University of Georgia as HOPE scholars.
Three years ago, Portch launched two long-term projects aimed at reaching down into the lower grades to give rising university system standards a foundation. The Post Secondary Readiness Enrichment Program (PREP) has identified about 12,000 middle-grade students who lack middle-class expectations for college, but show potential for it. PREP students are given summer enrichment classes on state campuses and campus field trips during the school year.

The other long-term project is a network of collaborative councils representing all educational grade levels, from pre-school through the fourth year of college (so instead of K-12 they are called P-16 councils). The state P-16 Council and its local offspring have been trying to harmonize the standards, curriculum and expectations of the university system with those of earlier grades.
But it is too early to say whether PREP or P-16 will have any effect at all, or whether a budget crunch or fall-off in lottery revenues will bring the changes in the university system to a screeching halt.

In 1989, a year before Zell Miller first ran for governor, he wrote a position paper of about 60 pages on his plans for Georgia, emphasizing his educational goals. Although Miller originally thought he could do what he needed to do in one term, and needlessly promised not to run for reelection, his foresight was remarkable.

In "The Georgia That Can Be: A Blueprint for the 1990s," Miller noted that faculty salaries were near the bottom in the South and needed to be boosted. He wanted to remove cost as a barrier to college attendance for qualified students. And he wanted the state's colleges and universities to play a much larger role in economic development.

Millner and Barnes have nothing close to such a plan for higher education. But they did answer questions on the subject put to them by the Atlanta Regional Consortium for Higher Education, an association of 19 public and private metropolitan area campuses.

Millner, a Florida native who graduated from Florida State University in political science, praised his former adversary as a visionary leader who brought Georgia's colleges and universities to the national forefront. He said continuing that legacy will be a primary focus of a Millner administration.

His other responses were brief, and suggested that he was unaware of regents collaborations such as the Intellectual Capital Partnership Program (ICAPP), in which businesses invest in state colleges in return for a quick and focused turnaround on graduates they want to hire, or the P-16 councils.
Barnes, in contrast, elaborated for five single-spaced pages, and showed himself well acquainted with ICAPP, P-16 and other regents initiatives. As a legislator for 22 years with undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Georgia, Barnes is a consummate insider. "Education will be the number-one priority of a Barnes Administration, and in order to do as much as we want to do in education, we've got to keep the economy strong," he wrote. "The two are interdependent."
That line could just as well have come from Zell Miller, who is supporting Barnes with a few low-key campaign appearances and occasional jabs at Millner's TV ads.

But, finally, guessing how well either candidate will maintain Miller's momentum is as foolish as guessing which one will win.

Last summer, Miller spoke at an emotionally charged ceremony at the University of Georgia's chapel celebrating his appointment as the first holder of the university's Phillip H. Alston Jr. Chair. "I have never entered a political campaign with any fear, and I've never entered a session of the General Assembly without being absolutely sure of myself," said Miller, who will be teaching freshmen political science next semester. "But I worry, ‘Do I really reach these students of the 90s and touch their lives?' I pray that I still can."

If leaving politics for academia makes Miller nervous, it makes a lot of other Georgians a little nervous as well.

Doug Cumming is an education reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Photos by Robin Nelson, Black Star, For CrossTalk

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