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Senators rush to fix oversight

LAWRENCEVILLE - Because of a law created before Georgia Gwinnett College ever existed, the county's new college won't be able to accept HOPE Scholarship funds to pay for students' mandatory fees.

But legislators hope to remedy that oversight before students head to classes this fall.

"From my perspective, there's nothing to be alarmed about," said Tom Daniel, senior vice chancellor of the Board of Regents. "This is just doing what we need to do and fortunately, we have time to do it."

State Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, has introduced legislation to give the state's first new college since 1970 access to the fee portion of the popular scholarship program. Tuition and books are not an issue.

"It's just one of those things no one thought of," said Balfour, who wrote the legislation that created the college last year.

The problem stemmed from a 2004 move by the General Assembly to cap use of the funds, which come from the Georgia Lottery.

With more and more students taking advantage of the scholarship, which goes to any Georgia high school student who maintains a B average at a state institution, officials have worried that the money would dry up. In fact, legislators Wednesday considered a constitutional measure to protect the funds.

Two years ago, amid a controversial debate on raising standards for the scholarship, legislators decided to cap fee reimbursements, making any increase imposed by the college ineligible for the scholarship.

Daniel said that because the Gwinnett college did not have any fees at that time, any amount would be an increase, and therefore ineligible. Tuition and fees for Georgia Gwinnett will likely be set in March, he said.

According to Daniel, mandatory fees for Georgia Perimeter College, which is the primary user of the Gwinnett University Center campus, are $140 per semester. The fees for the University of Georgia, which also has classes at the Lawrenceville location, are $495.

"It is no one's fault, but there was no provision in the law that dealt with a new institution," he said. "This was an inadvertent oversight."

In its first year, Georgia Gwinnett College is expected to accept between 250 and 300 juniors.

Because the state institution will not turn away anyone with a high school diploma, Harrison said he didn't expect the HOPE dilemma to affect a large number of students. But it could deter the ones with the best grades from applying.

That is, in the unlikely event that the bill does not pass this year.

Daniel said the drafted legislation would set Georgia Gwinnett College's cap on fees, and any other new college created in the future, at the amount set for the first year.

"It's going to be fixed," he said.

- Staff Writer Dave Williams contributed to this report.