In 2022, state lawmakers might consider revamping Mississippi’s state financial aid programs in a way that will change how thousands of students pay for college — and whether they even go. 

Under the proposed “Mississippi One Grant,” the state’s three current financial aid grants will be consolidated into a single program that will award aid using a formula of need plus merit. 

This policy would have wide-ranging implications for college students and their families, but understanding the ins-and-outs of this proposal can, at first glance, seem confusing and complicated. 

In an effort to help readers understand what’s going on here, we’ve created several data visualizations that show how the “One Grant” will affect students’ bottom line. As we walk you through the graphics, we’re also going to answer some key questions you might have about this proposal: 

  • Why is this change happening? 
  • How will the One Grant work? 
  • What’s at stake? 
  • How will this affect me? 

Let’s start with why lawmakers are considering this proposal. It’s mainly due to cost. 

Currently, Mississippi has three main financial aid programs:

  • The Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG): This grant is intended to help middle-class students who aren’t eligible for federal financial aid. It awards between $500 and $1,000 a year. 
  • The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG): This is the state’s merit-based grant for students who score at least a 29 on the ACT. It awards $2,500 a year. 
  • The Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP) grant: This is the state’s only need-based grant. It covers all four years of college for students with at least a 20 on the ACT who come from families that make less than $39,500 a year. 

All three programs were created in the late 1990s and, in recent years, have come under criticism for different reasons. MTAG and MESG no longer seem to accomplish the policy goals the state created them to meet. 

For some policymakers, the bigger problem lies with the HELP grant. While HELP is an effective program, it has ballooned in cost over the last 10 years as Mississippi universities increase tuition and more and more students apply and receive the grant. 

Rather than increase the amount of money it allocates to these programs, the Legislature has funded state financial aid at a deficit in recent years. This has led to worries that the Office of Student Financial aid might have to prorate student’s financial aid awards, so the Post-Secondary Board proposed and unanimously recommended that lawmakers pass the One Grant redesign as a way to stay in budget. 

To keep the One Grant on budget, the Post-Secondary Board is proposing capping the maximum award at $4,500. That will go only to the poorest students with the highest ACT scores. 

Now compare that to the cost of tuition at University of Mississippi: $8,934. That’s how much a UM student who gets the HELP grant currently receives in state aid: $8,934. The significant gap between those two awards are why advocates for college access in Mississippi are concerned about the One Grant. 

This brings us to what’s at stake: For many students in Mississippi, state financial aid programs are the difference between going to college and, well, not. The state’s high poverty levels mean we have some of the lowest college-going rates in the country, and that, in turn, affects the kinds of jobs Mississippians can get. State financial aid is one way many low-income students and their families can break that cycle of poverty.

This proposal, however, won’t help low-income students. Low-income students will receive significantly less aid under the One Grant than they do under the state’s current programs. Middle-class families on the other hand, who often can already afford to pay for college, will receive more aid. You can see this shift in dollars in the following chart: 

Because the One Grant will substantially cut aid for the poorest students in Mississippi, it also means Black and minority students will be getting much less. White students, on the other hand, will see their average aid slightly increase.

Why does the program have this effect? We already talked about the gap between the aid low-income students currently under the HELP grant and what they would receive from the One Grant. 

Another significant reason for this disparate impact is how the One Grant awards “merit.” To get any aid under the One Grant, a student has to score a minimum of 18 on the ACT. That minimum score is going to cut off many Black and low-income students who don’t have access to good test prep. 

More than half of Mississippi high school students do not score well enough on the ACT to get aid under this proposed program. 

When it proposed the One Grant, the Post-Secondary Board said it wanted to create a financial aid program that would give more aid to more students.

The One Grant will do that: About 1,700 more students will be eligible for aid under this new program. But the additional dollar amounts they will receive are negligible. The average student is going to gain just $87 in aid under this program. Meanwhile, low-income students are going to lose thousands.

Scott Smallwood contributed to this report.

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

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