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Analysis: Mississippi lawmakers reject college aid changes

JEFF AMY

<strong>There could have been a shift in how Mississippi helps students pay for college after findings showed one program benefiting many affluent families doesn’t appear effective, while less affluent families remained underserved.

Legislators, though, appear to have decided to do little for now.

That’s because subsidies to relatively affluent students have powerful protectors, including Republican lawmakers, the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.

“I don’t have any interest in trying to do away with any merit-based program that we have,” Senate Universities and College Committee Chairman Josh Harkins, a Brandon Republican, said earlier this legislative session.

Mississippi has three main financial aid programs. First, there’s the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant , which gives $500 a year to freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 a year to juniors and seniors. An eligible student must have at least a 2.5 GPA, and entering freshmen must score 15 or higher on the ACT college test. Plus, students can’t have so low an income that they’re eligible for the full federal Pell Grant of up to $6,195.

Second is the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant , worth $2,500 a year. An eligible student must have at least a 3.5 GPA, and entering freshmen must score 29 or higher on the ACT.

Finally, there’s the Higher Education Legislative Plan , or HELP. A family with no other college students must make less than $39,500, and students must have a 2.5 or higher GPA, score 20 or higher on ACT, and qualify for a full or partial Pell Grant. Students get tuition and fees — $7,805 on average this year at Mississippi’s public universities.

Mississippi will spend nearly $40 million on those programs this year, up from $30 million in 2015, with HELP driving increases. Such growth and tight budgets led lawmakers to eliminate funding to many student loan repayment programs meant to aid Mississippians who go into teaching and medical fields.

“There is not enough money to fund all of the programs,” Jennifer Rogers, who leads the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid, said in January.

Lack of money and concern about college affordability for families earning just above the HELP income ceiling led to a yearlong financial aid study.

Rogers proposed killing tuition assistance grants, saying they pay such a small share of college costs that they have little impact. More strongly, she asked lawmakers to get rid of eminent scholar grants. That’s in part because those recipients are likely to come from affluent households, with almost half of new freshmen coming from households earning above $110,000. But it’s also because the study found little evidence the money keeps high-achieving students in-state.

Lawmakers were cold to such changes. Harkins said he believes the eminent scholars helps hold high flyers in Mississippi, despite statistical evidence showing otherwise. And universities who enroll most eminent scholars — Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi — feared losing revenue.

Legislators did consider other changes. Harkins proposed a bill to smooth the HELP “cliff,” offering reduced amounts to students from households earning up to $55,000. That could have cost millions, and the price tag may have killed the plan.

Lawmakers discussed unifying deadline for the three programs at May 1, later than the current HELP deadline, but earlier than the deadline for the other two programs. But no bill advanced.

Finally, a bill would have required eminent scholars and tuition assistance recipients to complete federal financial aid applications. Not all do now, and Rogers wants to learn more about recipients. It died too.

Lawmakers could still increase funding to repay student loans of teachers, aiming to recruit more educators. But the broader rethinking of Mississippi financial aid has foundered for now.

» JEFF AMY has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/jeffamy .

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