University of Mississippi students walk to class on the Oxford campus. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

The Post-Secondary Board this week unanimously voted to recommend an overhaul of Mississippi’s financial aid programs that could completely change how the state helps students pay for college.

If adopted by the Legislature this upcoming session, low-income and Black students stand to lose thousands of dollars for college.

The program, called the “Mississippi One Grant,” was proposed Tuesday by a committee of eight financial aid directors at colleges and universities across the state.

It will replace Mississippi’s three current financial aid programs: the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG), which awards between $500 and $1,000 a year; the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG), the state’s merit-based grant, and the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP) program, the state’s only need-based grant that covers all four years of college.

“We had a lot of conversations, we had multiple meetings, we ran hundreds of scenarios,” said Paul McKinney, the director of financial aid at Mississippi State University who headed up the committee, said when he introduced the program. “I’m very proud to announce that, at the end of the day, with what we presented, it was unanimous.”

The proposed program will award financial aid based on their need and merit. “Need” will be determined by a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and “merit” by composite ACT score. The poorest students with the best ACT scores will receive the highest award of $4,500.

For the average low-income student who currently receives the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP) grant, that is a loss of more than $1,500 in financial aid. Students who receive HELP got an average award of $6,172 last year, according to the latest annual report from the Office of Student Financial Aid.

Eliminating the HELP grant — and not replacing it with a similar program — is going to make it much harder for low-income students to afford college in Mississippi, advocates for college access told Mississippi Today.

“It just breaks my heart,” said Ann Hendrick, the director of Get2College, a nonprofit that helps students complete the FAFSA. The HELP grant is “such a game-changer for students who didn’t think they could afford college.”

Notably, the program lacks input from students who rely on financial aid to go to college and their families. The committee did not reach out to those stakeholders for their thoughts.

“The way I see it is that we’ve got these individuals who spent their whole career doing financial aid awarding (on the committee), and they are also on the front lines with students and parents and they know the impact it’s gonna have … but point well taken, we never intended to pull in the public,” said Jim Turcotte, the chair of the Post-Secondary Board.

Despite the unanimous support from the committee and the board, advocates for college access are concerned about the policy.

On the whole, the Mississippi One Grant will result in more students being eligible for state financial aid. The committee estimated that about 4,500 more students will qualify for financial aid under the new program.

At the same time, students across the board will receive lower aid awards under the new program. The average student will receive $228 less than they would under the current system.

The average white student, however, will receive just $83 less than they would under the current system, according to the committee’s presentation. The average Black student will lose out on $689 of state financial aid.

Toren Ballard, the director of K-12 policy at Mississippi First, said that at scale, the new program amounts to “a massive transfer of resources from non-white students to white students.”

Under the new program, non-white students at four-year universities will lose approximately $1.1 million in state financial aid while white students will gain nearly $1.6 million, according to released by OSFA after the meeting.

“It’s like spreading the pie among more people, and cutting more even slices of each piece, rather than giving the largest ones to people who are more hungry,” Ballard told Mississippi Today.

Turcotte told Mississippi Today that this shift in resources was “not an intended outcome” of the new program. The committee didn’t “deliberately say, ‘let’s take money from this group and give it to that group,” he said. “We didn’t want to have a disparate impact on low-income students, white or Black.”

“There’s one pie and we can divide it up in various ways,” Turcotte said at the meeting. “We’re suggesting we want to help more students. There are winners and losers.”

At the meeting, the committee was asked whether gaps in funding created by the proposed program would lead to low-income students in Mississippi taking out student loans.

McKinney conceded that was a possibility. Student debt “gets a bum rap,” he said. “If used responsibly, it has a positive return. I can’t tell you how much more I made in my career because of student loans.”

The Office of Student Financial Aid, which works under the Post-Secondary Board, has warned for years that Mississippi’s financial aid programs — and the HELP grant in particular — were growing at an unsustainable rate.

As more and more students sought out and were awarded the HELP grant, the OSFA saw its budget balloon. Meanwhile, the funding from the state Legislature has not kept pace, leading OSFA’s director Jennifer Rogers to warn in 2019 the office had reached a “tipping point.”

At the Post-Secondary Board’s request, Rogers proposed an ambitious new program that same year. She recommended eliminating MTAG and MESG, and expanding the HELP grant. The rationale was simple: MTAG and MESG do not accomplish what the state created them to do, whereas study after study has shown the HELP grant is effective.

According to a study commissioned by NSPARC, about 75% of students who received HELP as a degree-seeking freshmen graduated in six years, compared to about 67% of students who were eligible for HELP but did not receive it.

But the Legislature never acted on Rogers’ proposals, and Turcotte, the chairman of the board, was asked to take another stab at revamping the programs. When Turcotte created the current committee, he charged it with proposing a single, indexed grant that would:

  • Smooth out HELP and MESG’s eligibility cut-offs
  • “Support needy and/or high achieving students”
  • “Have a positive impact on as many students as possible”
  • Stay within the current appropriations of $48 million

To qualify for the proposed One Grant, students who are Mississippi residents must complete the FAFSA, have a 2.5 high school GPA, and take at least 12 credit hours a semester. They must also score a composite score of at least 18 on the ACT.

Currently, students must score a 15 on the ACT to get MTAG, a 29 for MESG and a superscore (highest cumulative score) of 20 for HELP.

Raising the ACT scores was one way the committee hopes to keep the proposed program on budget, McKinney said at the meeting.

Turcotte is now writing a letter recommending the new program to the Legislature. He said he hopes lawmakers will solicit input from stakeholders like students when it considers the recommendation this session.

If the new program is put into place, there will be a four-year transition period for students who currently receive HELP, MTAG or MESG.

In the meantime, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who has been an outspoken proponent of the HELP grant, requested a meeting with Turcotte and members of the redesign committee to better understand the proposal. Hendrick and other college access folks are also looking over the numbers and have requested OSFA send them additional data about the program. They have a lot of questions about what the proposed program hopes to do.

Serving more people is “easy to do,” Hendrick said, “But what does that mean? Does that mean more people graduate from college or have access to college or is there a financial aid gap closed? I just wanted to understand what the rationale was behind some of the decisions they made, rather than stick to the budget and give more people money.”

Clarification: The proposed program would apply to new college students. Students who currently receive HELP, MTAG and MESG would not be affected.

Editor’s note: Get2College is a program of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a Mississippi Today donor.

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.