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Hold education to higher ideals

While increased lottery revenue is great news for Georgia's HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs, the continuing success of the state lottery might be causing unintended consequences for higher education.

The lottery was sold to voters in 1992 on the promise that the proposed HOPE scholarship would convince more of the top high school graduates to attend Georgia colleges rather than going out of state and would enable youngsters from financially strapped families to continue their education.

That is precisely what has happened. In fact, lottery revenues from the first year exceeded expectations. The amount of money the Georgia Lottery Corp. has delivered to the state since the inception in 1993 has surpassed anything anyone would have imagined.

The announcement this week that lottery officials expect to end the fiscal year June 30 with $400 million more in revenue than projected is a reversal from last fall when sales were down. With revenue expected to reach $2.9 billion for the year, the lottery is expected to transfer more than $800 million - up from $782 million a year ago - to the state for education programs.

This success, however, has created a mind set not unlike what has developed with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid throughout the decades. Beneficiaries come to view it as an entitlement, releasing themselves of personal responsibility financially.

In the case of HOPE scholarships, students and parents expect lottery dollars to fully pay for college tuition, books and fees. Consequently, legislators and citizenry have begun to view college costs and HOPE funds as two factors to be balanced.

Michael Adams, president of the University of Georgia, sees this thinking as a threat to the quality of higher education in Georgia, specifically for the research institutions, which depend on top-notch faculty. If colleges and universities don't stay competitive on pay, professors will leave.

Adams' concern is that the HOPE scholarship is becoming a disincentive to quality education, causing tuition to be held artificially low so that students and parents aren't disappointed in how much of college costs and for how many students the lottery funds cover.

The fact Georgia has the 15th lowest average tuition among 16 Southeastern states shouldn't be a bragging point. Adams points out that Georgia's average annual tuition is $1,200 below the mean of the 16 states.

If we're trying to be mediocre, the state is situated just right. However, that would be counter to what many in Georgia have worked so hard to achieve over the last decade or more. Losing ground in any area of education is unacceptable.