After years of budget woes, members of the Post-Secondary Board expressed surprise at a meeting Monday that the Legislature had fully funded Mississippi’s college financial aid programs this session.

This means that for the first time since 2015, the Office of Student Financial Aid will be able to award nine forgivable loan programs mainly targeting nursing and other health-related professions.

The board briefly considered reserving some of its funding,about $2.5 million from collections, for a “rainy day” — that is, a year when the Legislature is not as generous. OSFA had requested $48 million in general funds this session, and lawmakers ultimately appropriated about $50 million. 

“Why do we get more than we requested?” asked Barney Daly, a board member who is the president of North Metro at Trustmark National Bank.

“I do not know what the legislators were actually thinking,” replied Jennifer Rogers, OSFA’s director. 

“Have we ever gotten more than we asked for?” Daly asked again, this time chuckling. 

Prior to this session, lawmakers had underfunded Mississippi’s student financial aid programs for years. From the 2019 to 2021 sessions, OSFA had to ask for a deficit appropriation — meaning it had awarded more dollars to college financial aid than lawmakers had allocated. OSFA is obligated to award financial aid to every undergraduate college studentwho applies and qualifies for one of Mississippi’s three grant programs, but it can pro-rate awards if it does not receive enough state funding. 

OSFA was not receiving enough funds from the Legislature to award its forgivable loan programs. Per state statute, OSFA can award its loan programs on a first-come, first-serve basis only after every undergraduate student who applies and qualifies for a grant receives it. 

“This hasn’t happened in a very long time,” said Jim Turcotte, the executive director of Mississippi College’s alumni association and the chairman of the Post-Secondary Board. 

This year, OSFA will award up to about 460 students, primarily those pursuing nursing degrees. Students who met the March 30 deadline to apply have until April 30 to submit all their supporting documents. In general, through these loan programs, the state will forgive one year of a student’s loan in exchange for one year of service in Mississippi after graduation. 

This surplus of funds could affect the urgency behind the Mississippi One Grant, the overhaul of state financial aid programs the Post-Secondary Board proposed last year. By rewriting the state’s existing aid programs, the board sought to address the problem of legislative underfunding by capping the annual cost of the One Grant at $48 million. 

More students would qualify for the One Grant than the state’s current programs but Black and low-income students on average would lose thousands of dollars in college financial aid while white students would gain money. 

Still, some members wondered if the board should save its additional funding rather than spend it. After Rogers explained the board could choose to fund its forgivable loan programs, Turcotte asked his fellow members if it might be prudent to set aside the extra funds for a future session when the Legislature does not appropriate as much. 

“As we look ahead, there will be times in the future when we will not have enough money appropriated to this board to cover the projected expenses,” Turcotte said. 

“I’m just trying to look ahead because, again, I know there’ll be bleeding days ahead,” he added. 

Daly asked if it was possible for the board to save the funds for a “rainy day.” 

“I think if we don’t award, and we have a lot of carryover, there will be questions about why we’re carrying over a lot of money,” Rogers said. 

At the meeting, the board also discussed plans to implement a new scholarship for college students who were in foster care. Rogers also updated the board on the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Summer Grant Program. For that program, Rogers’ office will award up to $3.5 million to college students who have fallen behind on courses during the pandemic. Rogers said she thinks OSFA will award all the funds this summer.

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

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