A proposed overhaul of Mississippi’s state financial aid programs is complicated, unlikely to address existing issues and could create problems for low-income students, according to a new report from the Urban Institute.
Instead of pursuing the Mississippi One Grant, the report recommends the state consolidate its college aid programs into two simple grants: One program to provide low-income students with need-based aid, and another that makes awards based on a students’ grades or test scores.
“The state will always face trade-offs between controlling the budget and providing the support on which so many students depend,” the report says. “But designing programs that allow students who cannot afford college on their own is the most promising strategy for ensuring a high return on the state’s investment.”
The report also says the One Grant will not effectively help more students get degrees, in part because it will decrease the funding available for low-income students who already struggle to afford college in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country.
“Taking the money from students who really depend on it just doesn’t seem like the best way to balance the budget, because it’s very short-sighted,” said Sandy Baum, one of the report’s authors.
Baum and her co-author, Kristin Blagg, have studied state aid programs in Texas and New Jersey. Baum and Blagg studied annual reports from Mississippi’s Office of Student Financial Aid, looked at existing research on state aid and college access, and talked with Get2College, a local non-profit.
Mississippi’s three college financial aid programs have faced scrutiny in recent years. Advocates for college access in Mississippi, like Get2College, say the state’s programs no longer serve their original purpose, which is to help low income and middle class students afford to go to college.
The Postsecondary Education Financial Assistance Board, which oversees Mississippi’s financial aid programs, is primarily concerned about the growing cost. As the price of college tuition increases in Mississippi, so has the cost of the state financial aid programs, particularly the Higher Education Legislative Exchange Grant for Needy Students, which pays for all four years of undergrad for low-income students.
The board has explored ways to minimize the cost of its programs since 2019. The One Grant, unveiled last October, was the board’s latest proposal.
Under the One Grant, the state would award aid based on a student’s financial need and academic merit. The highest award of $4,500 would go to the poorest students with the best ACT scores — that award is significantly less than many low-income students currently receive from the HELP grant.
While low-income students would lose thousands of dollars in financial aid under the One Grant, more affluent students would gain money. That also means that Black students, on average, would lose money, and white students would gain money.
“Every state has different demographics, different circumstances and different goals,” Baum said. “But what’s always going to be true is, awards based on test scores, and on high school grades, are going to be disproportionately tilted towards more affluent students.”
Research shows that affluent students whose families can afford college are more likely to go regardless of the financial aid they can receive, Baum said, whereas grants and scholarships make more of a difference for low-income students.
Baum said she would urge policymakers in Mississippi to see how the One Grant creates “this problem of trying to kill two birds with one stone.”
“It’s really tough to take one specific policy tool and use it to solve both of your very diverse goals,” she said. “That’s not something that’s specific to Mississippi.”
College is increasingly unaffordable for the average Mississippi family as the eight public universities have steadily increased tuition. Yet lawmakers and members of the Post-Secondary Board have looked for ways to limit the number of students who can qualify for college financial aid in Mississippi.
Last year, state Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, proposed a bill that would raise the ACT scores required to get financial aid through the MTAG and MESG programs. His proposed requirements — 17 for MTAG and 30 for MESG — are higher than the minimum ACT score of 16 that most students need to gain entrance to Mississippi’s public universities.
The report says it is “counterproductive” that the ACT standards to receive state aid in Mississippi are higher than the scores required to be admitted to public universities.
“You don’t have to believe that everybody should go to college right after high school to think that, if you’re going to accept students and enroll them, you should do everything you can to help them succeed,” Baum said. “And that means both giving them academic support and social support and financial support.”
“It’s hard to see the logic of saying, you know what, let’s accept them and then hope that they can’t afford to come,” she added.
The One Grant has floundered as a proposal. This session, no lawmaker introduced the One Grant in a bill. The Post-Secondary Board is now considering ways to engage lawmakers in discussion about state financial aid programs this summer.
Baum and Blagg hope board members will consider the proposal the next time they think about retooling state aid. Their report recommends that Mississippi should consider programs that have the same deadline, require minimal application materials, pay for summer semesters, and provide aid to part-time and adult students.
“In the next go around, a good next step (for the board) is thinking clearly about separating out where you want the aid for merit to go and where you want aid for financial needs to go,” Blagg said.
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.