Official Opinion 95-34
Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission
You have requested an official opinion interpreting the statutory language recently enacted as O.C.G.A. § 20-3-411(2)(C), which authorizes the payment of tuition equalization grants to qualified proprietary institutions of higher education upon their satisfaction of certain enumerated criteria. In particular, you ask whether under the statute an "approved school" for purposes of tuition equalization grants must have been in existence in Georgia for ten years, or whether a ten year existence elsewhere is sufficient for eligibility. You also inquire about this time limitation in connection with a school granting baccalaureate degrees. It is my official opinion that to qualify for tuition equalization grants a proprietary institution must have been in existence in Georgia for ten years and must be a baccalaureate degree granting institution on or after July 1, 1995.
Prior to the 1995 session, only nonproprietary institutions of higher education were authorized to receive tuition equalization grants on behalf of eligible students. The amendment to O.C.G.A. § 20-3-411(2) which added Subsection (C) expanded the authorized institutions to include proprietary
schools. Among the conditions imposed by the General Assembly for receipt of the grants was that the institution was one "which has been in existence for at least ten years." Id. This clause, along with several others, modifies the prefatory Code language describing an "approved school" as "[a] qualified proprietary institution of higher education located in this state." Id. (emphasis added). Although the General Assembly could have made a school's location a separate condition, it elected not to do so. In the absence of guiding legislative history, this language must be interpreted according to its plain meaning. The statute contains a single predicate, "[a] qualified proprietary institution of higher education located in this state," followed by several modifying conditions, among them a ten year existence. Since the institution must be located in Georgia as a prerequisite to consideration of the other conditions, the requirement of a ten year existence logically modifies the time an institution has been located in Georgia.
This construction squares with standard rules of statutory interpretation which dictate that meaning be given to all parts of a statute under consideration. O.C.G.A. § 1-3-1(a). In related legislation, the General Assembly has recognized that one of the underpinnings for using public funds to assist students in attending private institutions was the immense benefits of these schools to the state due to the economic and cultural development and prosperity they provide to the state and its citizens. See O.C.G.A. § 20-3-311(a). Mandating that the public receive such benefits for a period of time prior to the expenditure of public funds in support of such institutions is a prudent legislative choice, especially where the grant recipients operate for profit.
The General Assembly has in the past hinged institutional operation requirements on the presence of the principal office and campus of an institution within this state. See O.C.G.A. § 20-3-250.3(a)(10), (12). Thus, emphasizing an institution's commitment to this state is not a novel concept. By assuring the availability of an institution to the citizens of Georgia in advance of payment of tuition equalization grants, the General Assembly fulfills its stated legislative intent of cost reduction and effectuation of the public interest through grant payments on behalf of students. O.C.G.A. § 20-3-410(a). This office has previously opined that the General Assembly may legitimately encourage through statutory incentives the attainment of appropriate goals. See 1986 Op. Att'y Gen. U86-10, p. 144. In this instance, ten years service to the citizens of Georgia is the incentive, likely to be calculated from the date of issuance of authority to operate in Georgia. See O.C.G.A. § 20-3-250.8.
The analysis above furnishes the background for your second inquiry. While the General Assembly included the location of a school in its prefatory language, the statutory condition that a school be a baccalaureate degree granting institution is contained within the general prerequisites to receipt of tuition equalization grants. As a consequence, the ten year time frame appearing elsewhere in the statutory conditions is an independent clause and cannot be logically read to require that a school be a baccalaureate degree granting institution for ten years before tuition equalization grants may be received. Therefore, it is my official opinion that while a school must be a baccalaureate degree granting institution before it is eligible to receive such grants, this condition may be fulfilled on or after July 1, 1995, the effective date of the authorizing legislative act.
In summary, it is my official opinion that an "approved school" for purposes of tuition equalization grants must have been in existence in Georgia for ten years prior to being eligible to receive grant funds in addition to satisfying other statutory criteria. Further, it is my official opinion that eligibility also is dependent upon a school being a baccalaureate degree granting institution on or after July 1, 1995.
WILLIAM M. DROZE
Assistant Attorney General