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Many students to receive less financial aid

By BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal

The Mississippi Legislature, having to slash budgets to deal with sluggish revenue collections, has cut the amount of financial aid about 3,400 students will receive for the upcoming academic year.

Late in the just-completed 2017 legislative session, language was placed in the student financial aid funding bill to prohibit students from being awarded more than one state-supported tuition assistance grant.

The state has multiple programs that provide financial assistance for students to attend college. In the past, students could “stack” or use more than one of the programs as long as they qualified.

Under the language approved by the Legislature during the final days of the session, the student can only take advantage of one grant program – the one that provides the most scholarship help.

About 3,400 undergraduate students will be impacted by the change, according to a news release from the Institutions of Higher Learning that administers the state aid program for college students. In addition, it is estimated that 430 students could be impacted by “more strenuous academic eligibility reviews” each semester.

Without the change, it is estimated that there would have had to be a reduction of 3.1 percent for nearly 26,000 grants awarded. Roughly 26,000 students in both the public universities, community colleges and Mississippi’s private colleges receive tuition assistance through the state programs.

The change to the financial aid program is expected to close a funding gap of about $3 million for the upcoming year.

“It is a good news story that more Mississippians are going to college to earn a degree,” Jennifer Rogers, director of the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid, said in a news release. “Unfortunately, the growth in college-going has resulted in a costly increase in demand for state aid. We look forward to working with the Legislature and postsecondary institution leaders to identify a sustainable solution for state financial aid.”

In addition to the growth in the number of students, the Legislature has cut the amount of money going to student financial aid, like it has cut most every program.

The program was cut $1.1 million or 2.8 percent for the upcoming fiscal year. That funding level comes on top of cuts during the 2016 session that forced the administrators of the grants to cut back on various programs, such as forgivable loans for students in critical fields, such as teachers and nurses.

Funding is about $10 million short of what is needed to fully fund all aspects of the state’s financial aid programs.

The state has multiple financial aid programs. The biggest of those in terms of participation is the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant, which provides $500 of assistance per academic year for freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 per year for juniors and seniors. A student must have a 2.5 grade point average to qualify for MTAG.

The state’s biggest needs-based merit program is the Higher Education Legislative Plan, or HELP.

The bill funding student financial aid is still pending the signature of Gov. Phil Bryant. He has until April 20 to sign it and most of the other budget bills into law.

Many of those budget bills will mandate cuts of 10 percent or more for many state agencies. The Legislature appropriated $329 million less during the 2017 session than it did in 2016.

Funding for the eight public universities for the upcoming year, beginning July 1, is $586.2 million compared to $660.2 million last year.

Community college funding is $227.2 million this year compared to $264.6 million last year.

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