Georgia should use financial aid to help close its middle skills gap

By Melissa Johnson, January 22, 2019

Georgia joins a number of states this month in convening a new session of the legislature and welcoming a new governor. One of the most pressing challenges facing these new leaders is the state’s middle skills gap. Most jobs in Georgia’s labor market – 55 percent – are middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree. However, only 43 percent of Georgia workers are trained to the middle-skill level.

NSC’s new brief, Closing Georgia’s Skills Gap through Financial Aid, outlines why the state needs more workers with associate’s degrees in high-demand fields and details two steps that the state could take to fill this need: (1) extend the time to earn the HOPE scholarship and (2) expand HOPE Career Grants to include associate’s degrees. NSC authored this brief in partnership with several Georgia-based organizations – Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Atlanta CareerRise, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and the Atlanta Civic Site of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Producing more workers with associate’s degrees is only one part of filling Georgia’s middle skills gap, but it is a particularly important piece of meeting this goal. Currently Georgia does not produce enough associate’s degree graduates to meet employer demand. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Georgia produced about 19,000 associate’s degree holders while there are nearly 34,000 job postings requiring an associate’s degree.

Meanwhile Georgia’s associate’s degree students face significant financial need. Financial aid can help these students complete college, but because of program limitations HOPE – Georgia’s largest and most well-known college financial aid program – only reaches 15 percent of associate’s degree students.

To help close its middle-skills gap by supporting more students in securing associate’s degrees, Georgia should make two policy changes:

1. Extend the time to earn the HOPE scholarship.

Associate’s degree students who are more than seven years removed from high school graduation are ineligible for the HOPE scholarship. More than two in five of Georgia’s associate’s degree students are older than twenty-five, making them likely ineligible for this crucial form of financial aid that can help them complete their associate’s degree and secure a well-paying job.

2. Expand HOPE Career Grants to include associate’s degrees

Georgia has established HOPE Career Grants to provide additional help to students pursuing technical certificates and diplomas in high-demand fields. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA to qualify for the grant. The combination of the HOPE Grant and the HOPE Career Grant covers tuition for Georgians pursuing certificates and diplomas in targeted fields. However, associate’s degree students in these in-demand HOPE Career Grant fields cannot access this financial aid. Allowing associate’s degree students to access the HOPE Career Grant can help employers meet their most pressing needs for talent.

Now, at the beginning of new gubernatorial and legislative terms, is a wonderful time for Georgia’s leaders to take bold new steps to address its middle skills gap. NSC’s new brief shows exactly how they can begin.