Matson’s sign behind Kirk Herbstreit’s right shoulder at ESPN “College GameDay” on Nov. 13, 2021. (Photo courtesy Andy Flores)

Last Saturday morning, viewers watching ESPN’s “College GameDay” event in Oxford saw a blue-and-white rectangular sign pop up behind Kirk Herbstreit’s right shoulder. In lettering the shape of the state of Mississippi, the sign read: “Help Save HELP.” 

Devan Williams and Bennett Matson, two seniors at University of Mississippi, had been waiting all night for this moment. The pair camped out in the Grove in sleeping bags, splitting some Chex-Mix and a Domino’s pizza, so they could be first in line that morning — all in an effort to raise awareness about a new policy that could affect tens of thousands of college students in Mississippi. 

Last month, a little-known education board that oversees the state’s financial aid programs proposed a plan that could transform how Mississippi students pay for college. 

The “Mississippi One Grant” will replace the state’s three current financial aid programs, including the only grant that takes a student’s financial need into account: the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Student, or HELP, grant, which pays for all four years of college for students from families that make less than $39,500. 

At most, low-income students will receive $4,500 in financial aid from the One Grant, far less than they can currently get from the HELP grant. If adopted by the Legislature in 2022, the One Grant will, on average, lead to lower financial aid awards for Black and low-income students, while white, wealthier students will see their aid awards go up. 

READ MORE: Black, low-income students will lose thousands in college aid under proposed program

Williams and Matson, senators in UM’s student government, were concerned when they learned the One Grant proposal would get rid of the HELP grant. They wanted to do something in solidarity. 

That’s when Matson came up with the idea to try to get a sign on “College GameDay.” 

“It’s not very often that national news comes to small-town Mississippi,” Matson said. He wanted to use that “really great opportunity to try to make some impact, to inform people about a policy that’s going to affect college students.” 

Williams, left, and Matson, right, the night before ESPN’s “College GameDay” event in Oxford.

To come up with the sign, Williams and Matson got together with a fellow member of student government, Andy Flores. A HELP recipient, Flores had started a group to advocate for the HELP grant after he learned about the proposed changes. 

“Help Save HELP,” the phrase on Matson’s sign, is not just a slogan for cause — it’s also the name of the growing, grassroots coalition of college students across the state that Flores started.  

In the week since the Post-Secondary Board announced the “One Grant,” “Help Save HELP” has created a petition that has garnered over 1,700 signatures, started an Instagram account to collect student testimonials, tabled on University of Mississippi’s campus, and met with senators and representatives from across the state. 

READ MORE: Students react to proposal that would slash thousands in financial aid

Flores, the student who created the group, said the coalition now has more than 50 members at UM, Mississippi University for Women, and University of Southern Mississippi. 

For these students, the debate over the proposed One Grant is more than statistics: It’s about their friends and families. Matson, who is from Memphis, has seen firsthand how the HELP grant has made a difference in his friends lives. 

Williams himself is a HELP recipient. 

“Me, myself, I couldn’t imagine going to college — let alone the University of Mississippi — without the HELP grant,” Williams said. 

The HELP grant has not just enabled Williams to go to college, it has supported him in showing younger members of his family that college is possible. He’s from Jackson, and less than half his high school graduating class went to college. This May, he’s going to be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. 

“It helped my extended family,” he said. “Like, my cousins, they see me here at college and they see that I was able to do it, to find a way to afford it, and it has inspired them.” 

Getting rid of the HELP grant, Williams said, will only make the problems worse. While the HELP grant was life-changing for him, as it stands, the double-major still has to take out student loans to pay for food, housing, and transportation — the cost of living that makes college possible. 

Even with the HELP grant in place, Williams said he knows many people from his high school who didn’t apply for college. He thinks the One Grant will increase the number of high schoolers in Mississippi who don’t go to college. 

“It will close up opportunities and create barriers to education,” Williams said. “It’ll be harder to overcome socioeconomic barriers if we don’t have things like the HELP grant.” 

Williams’ perspective is supported by the data. Students who come from the poorest families in the state will, on average, lose more than $3,000 under the new program, while the wealthiest students from families that make more than $250,000 will gain about $200, according to data from the Office of Student Financial Aid. 

This will also impact students’ depending on their race: Under the One Grant, the average white student will receive $63 more than they would under the current system, while the average Black student will lose out on $573 of state financial aid. 

Before the 2022 legislative session starts in January, members of Help Save HELP are meeting with state representatives and senators. They have planned letter writing campaigns and phone-banking sessions. Flores is making calls to student senators at other schools to see if they will pass resolutions condemning the new program as well. 

It’s a lot of work, but it’s important, Flores said, for students to have their voices heard. The Post-Secondary Board created the One Grant without input from students or families who benefit from state financial aid. Now, Matson said, they’re making up for lost time. 

Without student input, “you’re not making a comprehensive policy,” Matson said. “At the end of the day, it’s only right to hear from the students affected, as opposed to making all of these decisions from a top down basis 

If the Legislature takes up the program, Matson said he’d like to see students’ voices and experiences be centered and prioritized. Any new state financial aid policy should be “based off hearing the voices of the people that it affects,” he said. “Everyone who I know has received the HELP grant says again and again how impactful it’s been …  that’s what should be guiding policy: Proven results.” 

Getting the sign on TV “was a way to show that student representation and student voices still have a seat at the table,” Matson said, “even if we have to make that seat ourselves.”

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

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