U. of Mississippi

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In Mississippi, Shifting Aid Dollars

How should a state dole out its limited money for college financial aid? That’s the basic question at the center of a new legislative proposal in Mississippi. And despite national currents that focus attention on increasing access for poor students, (calls to double the Pell Grant, for instance) the state is swimming in the other direction. 

First, a quick rundown on how Mississippi currently spends its $45 million in state aid: 

  • One grant, known as HELP, goes to the poorest students, with ACT scores of at least 20 and high-school GPAs of at least 2.5. It’s quite generous, covering full tuition at public colleges and universities for families who make less than $39,500.
  • A second grant doesn’t consider financial need and gives up to $2,500 to students who score a 29 or higher on the ACT and have a 3.5 high-school GPA.
  • A third, smaller one goes to about 20,000 students in the state who don’t qualify for a full Pell Grant. (That one amounts to $500 or $1,000 a year). 

It’s a complicated set of programs, all with slightly different rules. That’s just one problem. The bigger challenge is the skyrocketing cost. As more students learned about HELP in recent years, spending for the grant has ballooned — up nearly 80 percent since 2016. This unsustainable growth, officials say, has to be curtailed. 

The state’s Post-Secondary Board approved the plan last week and will now recommend the legislature adopt it in the next session. The new one — dubbed the Mississippi One Grant — would be much simpler, cover more students, and be much less generous to poor students. 

And as Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, heard from a key leader there, dividing up the same pie in a new way will mean “there are winners and losers.”

The losers? Mostly poor students.

An example: Right now, a student qualifying for HELP with an ACT score of 20 gets an average of $7,800 to attend the University of Mississippi, but would get just $2,500 under the new program.

The winners? More middle income families with slightly better test scores. All of the charts are based on expected family contribution and that requires a calculator to get an exact number. Here’s a sketch though: 

A family with two parents and two children that earns roughly $90,000 might have an expected family contribution of around $6,000. A student from that family, with an ACT score of 25, qualifies for just the smallest grant program now. Under the new proposal, though they would receive $1,600 — or an average of $825 more.

Jim Turcotte, the chair of the board, told Molly the committee didn’t “deliberately say, ‘let’s take money from this group and give it to that group.”

But cutting the aid for HELP students has a much bigger effect for Black students. Taken all together, the average Black student attending a public 4-year public college would get about $1,000 less in aid, according to an analysis by the state Office of Financial Aid. In contrast, support for the average white student at those colleges would increase by $58. 

Current students would not be affected by the redesign of the aid programs but some are already pushing to scrap the proposal. A petition quickly gathered 1,000 signatures, and Molly followed yesterday with a story on the student perspective.

—Scott Smallwood

Elsewhere on Open Campus

In Work Shift: Career development partnerships with HBCUs on the rise. Collaborative career preparation and workforce development programs at HBCUs are cropping up across the nation, as more organizations seek to invest in Black students and workers amid a national reckoning on race.

In Colorado: How Colorado counselors hope the new FAFSA will help overwhelmed families. The current form’s 108 questions, its use of the term “Expected Family Contribution,” and its selective services question all have stifled the process. That military question, for example, often raised big, heavy questions that bogged down the process: “It’s a whole conversation,” one counselor said, “about how the draft hasn’t come into effect since 1972.”

In Mississippi: College board ups state’s share of the salary of Mississippi State University’s president. Mark Keenum’s contract as president of Mississippi State University has been renewed for four years, to 2025. His salary will remain $800,000 per year, with the state now paying half.

In El Paso: El Paso universities set to receive millions from Texas Legislature for campus construction projects. The bill passed this week provides $3.3 billion to fund capital projects at several public universities and colleges, including the University of Texas at El Paso and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso.

In latitude(s): New legislation would allow U.S. colleges to continue incentive-based student recruiting overseas. A provision in a recently passed bill put the use of agents in international recruiting in an unexpected gray area.

In The Job: Skepticism about companies’ college benefits. Do they pay off for employees? And how many people will they help?

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