As lawmakers hear proposal to redesign financial aid, education policy experts

A proposal that would substantially overhaul how the state doles out money to help Mississippians pay for college was presented to a joint hearing of lawmakers on Tuesday.

Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, told lawmakers that she does not believe a “perfect plan” exists, but she can’t think of a proposal that has consensus and “would advance the state more than this one does.”

She credited this support to the closed-door task force that created the proposal. Last year, the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a nonprofit, invited public officials from higher education and workforce development to participate with the goal of redesigning state financial aid. Student recipients of state financial aid were not invited to attend. 

If the wide-ranging proposal becomes law, it would be the first time that lawmakers have updated Mississippi’s undergraduate grant aid programs since they were created in the late 1990s. The committees plan to consider two identical bills based on this proposal later this week. 

Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the vice-chairman of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, said the goal of the bill is “simply to try to get more people into the workforce.” 

He speculated Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the House and Senate committees ever held a joint meeting, signaling broad legislative support for this year’s proposal after prior efforts to redesign state financial aid have failed to get off the ground. 

The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG), the state’s only merit-based program with the primary purpose of rewarding academic achievement — and the most racially inequitable program — is the only state aid program that would remain untouched. The task force didn’t propose changes to MESG, Rogers told the committee, recognizing it has “broad political support.” 

The bill seeks to reduce the amount of money that Mississippi spends on its only grant aimed at helping low-income students afford college — the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP grant — while expanding the Mississippi Resident Assistance Tuition Grant (MTAG).

It proposes kicking an additional $18 million in state funds to MTAG but lowering spending on the HELP grant by $7 million. 

As written, the bills would reduce awards made under the HELP grant, which currently pays for all four years of college, no matter the institution a recipient chooses to attend. Officials are continuing to target spending on the HELP grant even though the cost, which had been increasing over the last decade, appears to be reaching a cliff, according to OSFA’s annual report this year. 

HELP recipients, by and large, choose to spend the generous grant at four-year universities, not community colleges. The growing cost of tuition at the universities is one reason why the state spends the most money on this grant each year. But the bills’ changes aim to push more recipients toward community college by turning the HELP grant into what’s commonly called a “2+2 program.” 

Awards for freshmen and sophomores would be lowered to the average cost of tuition at the community colleges, even if recipients decide to attend a four-year university. Juniors and seniors would receive the average cost of university tuition, an attempt to encourage them to transfer.

This way, the HELP grant would have reduced buying power at the universities, increasing the likelihood that low-income students would initially choose community colleges as the more affordable option. 

While this move would save the state of Mississippi money, education policy experts told Mississippi Today that it also likely means the rate at which low-income recipients graduate from public universities would plummet. 

Nationally, just 1 in 6 community college students successfully transfer to universities.

“Cutting HELP in a way that directs talented low-income students to community colleges is definitely problematic,” said Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied Mississippi’s state financial aid policies. 

Scoggin acknowledged that with the changes, HELP recipients “may very well just stay at the community college and not transfer” to university but he speculated that would depend on a student’s degree field. 

Philip Bonfanti, the executive vice president of Mississippi Gulf…

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