Bounds, Ross ask for more financial aid

JACKSON — Higher education leaders are asking Mississippi lawmakers to boost funding for financial aid programs, saying hundreds of students have been denied assistance because of a lack of money.

State College Board President Scott Ross and Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds appeared before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday — a day after the board voted to raise average tuition 6.8 percent next fall.

Lawmakers initially appropriated about $31.9 million for the state’s 27 financial aid programs for the budget year that started last July 1. So far this year, financial aid funding has been reduced by about $2.5 million through gubernatorial budget cuts.

This year, 343 students who were eligible for the assistance didn’t receive it, according to College Board.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said it’s too early to know whether there will be an attempt to increase financial aid for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We’d love to, but I don’t know,” Stringer said Tuesday.

Between 27,000 and 29,000 receive assistance from the state programs, said Jennifer Rogers, director of student financial aid for the College Board.

The bulk of the funding goes to the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant program and programs for high-achieving students and those who major in education, Rogers said.

Bounds said about 75 percent of Mississippi’s 73,700 students receive some form of financial aid through federal or state programs.

The Mississippi House approved a bill Tuesday the would restore the financial aid funds cut this year by tapping into the rainy day fund and Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund, where the state’s tobacco settlement payments are deposited. The bill is now headed to Senate, but it’s expected to be blocked.

“It’s clear to me this will significantly help students are already in school to stay in school,” Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said of restoring the funds.

Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, was among the lawmakers who took issue with the board’s decision to approve higher tuition cost for the next two years. Holland said the board had shifted the “burden” to the state’s middle and low-income parents.

House Universities and Colleges Committee Kelvin Buck, D-Holly Springs, said the tuition increases could lead to a decreased enrollment at the state’s eight public universities.

“The IHL Board was forced to raise tuition in direct response to Gov. Haley Barbour’s deep cuts in their budgets. It is clear that Gov. Barbour’s cuts, in the name of keeping his pledge to not raise anybody’s taxes, is nothing more than a transfer of the cost directly to struggling families.”

Barbour has said state law requires him to reduce state agency budgets when revenue collections fail to meet projections. Mississippi cannot legally end its fiscal year in a deficit.

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