Maple Smith has lived all her adult life in Greenville, save for the four years she spent in undergrad at Mississippi State University. A secretary in the city clerk’s office, she looks for ways to, as she puts it, “sow seeds” in Greenville in her free time — which she has a lot more of, now that her three kids have gone to college. 

In 2018, the mayor’s office invited Smith to join a new initiative called the Greenville College Access Network that would help local students get financial aid for college. The idea was if more local students are able to go to college, more businesses will be attracted to create better-paying jobs in Greenville, said Mayor Errick Simmons. 

Almost three years later, Smith can’t count the number of hours she’s spent helping students in Greenville apply for financial aid. Along with her co-coordinator, Sheila Watson, she’s created PowerPoints and pamphlets to help students navigate the tedious Federal Application for Student Financial Aid. The two women have made a marked difference in the number of students in their community who get college financial aid: This year, FAFSA applications at Greenville High School have more than doubled, according to Get2College

“We started this out from the ground up,” Smith said. 

The price of tuition is one of the biggest barriers to college access in Mississippi. As the Legislature has cut funding for higher education, universities across the state have steadily increased tuition. The cost of college now eats up about a quarter of annual income for working class families in Mississippi. That has an impact on college-going rates across the state and in Greenville specifically, where in 2020, 19% of adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree compared to the national average of 33%. 

In recent years, the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid has worked to increase the number of low-income students who get the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP, grant which pays for all four years of college. Despite the effectiveness of the HELP grant, the Post-Secondary Board, which oversees state financial aid, cited the program’s growing cost as a reason to overhaul it. 

Last year, the board proposed a new policy that would have led to Black and low-income students receiving less financial aid. The policy was created by a panel of financial aid officers at universities and colleges across the state, without input from students or parents like Smith and Watson — who know firsthand the life-changing effect the HELP grant can have on students. 

“It’s imperative that students take advantage of the HELP grant,” Watson said. 

READ MORE: Here’s how to apply for the FAFSA

Before GCAN formally launched in April 2021, the mayor’s office invited Smith, Watson and other local parents and high school students to participate in a brainstorming session to identify the problems that prevent studentsin Greenville from attending college. The session was led by Carol Cutler White, a professor at Mississippi State University who won the initial grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service that supported GCAN’s efforts.

There is no public transportation in Greenville, so it can be hard for parents to attend college nights at local high schools. And some parents might be working. Internet access is spotty, which can make it difficult for students and parents to fill out the electronic version of the FAFSA. The pandemic only made that harder, Watson said, when many parents were laid off and lost the WiFi access their jobs provided. 

“COVID really put a damper in our community, and our graduation rates were really low,” Watson said. She felt like students were “giving up on going to college.” 

Ideally, local high schools would offer the services that GCAN is providing. But counselors, overworked and underpaid, often don’t have time to help students apply for financial aid, Smith said. Even though she had put three kids through college, Smith had never heard a counselor mention the HELP grant. 

“Until I started working with Greenville CAN — and this goes to show you how little information we are given sometimes — I knew nothing, nothing, about the HELP grant,” Smith said. “Just imagine if I had known anything about the HELP grant.” 

“That’s why now when I talk to these children, and I talk to these parents, I drill into them — I drill, I drill, I drill — the HELP grant,” Smith added, “because that’s one grant that has been withheld from us for far too long.” 

Shelia Watson and GCAN volunteers Marva Johnson and Tashunda Mosley at a recent mixer for volunteers.

Every Monday and Wednesday at 5 p.m., and twice a month on Saturday, Smith and Watson man a table at the Percy Memorial Library, a public library in downtown Greenville. When GCAN started in April, they’d wait for hours only for no one to come. But word soon spread as Smith and Watson enlisted volunteers through local fraternities and sororities and churches. As more students showed up, they’d refer their friends to Smith and Watson.

Now, the two women hear from so many students who want help with the FAFSA that they’re fielding requests at all hours of the day. At 7:30 p.m. on a recent Friday night, Smith was planning to help a student fill out the FAFSA over Zoom. She’s heard from two students already in college who wanted her help talking to the financial aid office. 

Over the next year, Simmons said the mayor’s office plans to grow the initiative, including changing its name to the Greenville College Access and Attainment Network. 

Adding the word “attainment” signals a commitment by the mayor’s office to bring students back to Greenville after they graduate college, Simmons said. The network will also expand to support that goal: White, the MSU professor, has a new grant from AmeriCorp that will add 15-20 GCAN members to work as mentors to students — essentially formalizing the work that Smith and Watson are doing now. 

Like Smith, Watson was born and raised in Greenville but left to go to college at Mississippi Valley State University. She worked in adult education under the Mississippi Department of Labor. Now Watson teaches English language arts at Weddington Elementary, where she graduated from sixth grade. 

Watson has seen the difference a post-secondary degree of any kind can make in a student’s life. Her hope for students is once students get a degree, they will come back to Greenville like she did.

“It’s up to the student … to give back to their community first before they go other places,” Watson said. “That’s what we’re seeing now: Students helping, giving back to the family first.” 

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.