A state education board wants lawmakers to take a different approach to financial aid programs intended to tackle Mississippi’s growing nursing shortage. 

Earlier this year, lawmakers created the Nursing and Respiratory Therapy Education Incentive Program, which would provide nurses with money for college if they agree to work in Mississippi for five years after they graduate. If a nurse reneged on the deal, they’d have to pay the money back with interest. 

This forgivable loan program would create more student debt in Mississippi and likely do little to address the nursing shortage, Mississippi Today reported earlier this year. 

It’s not yet up and running because it was too complicated for the Office of Student Financial Aid to implement this year. Now the program may never get off the ground. 

Members of the Postsecondary Education Financial Assistance Board on Wednesday unanimously voted to ask lawmakers to roll back the forgivable loan program and replace it with a stipend that would be awarded at the end of each year a nurse works in Mississippi. Nurses could use the funds to pay off federal student loans. 

The move reflects a shifting policy debate over Mississippi’s use of student loans to address labor shortages as well as the board’s desire to reduce the administrative burden on the seven-person office that would implement the program. 

“It is philosophically saying the state needs to back out of loans the way they’re currently structured,” said Jim Turcotte, the executive director of Mississippi College’s alumni association and the chairman of the Post-Secondary Board.

Members also voted to approve rules and regulations for the forgivable loan program in the event this proposal does not find a “champion” in the Legislature. The board has faced trouble getting lawmakers to approve its requests in the past. 

For future nursing students in Mississippi, the bottom line is that a stipend program would help them pay off student debt while a forgivable loan program would be another way to take on even more debt. 

“We’re talking about somewhat of a subtle shift in a way of who’s holding the debt,” Turcotte said. 

Mississippi has long relied on forgivable loan programs to address labor shortages, said Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Office of Student Financial Aid. These programs, in theory, can fix labor shortages by using student debt as a tool to create more college graduates for a field that needs workers. 

To administer these programs, the state essentially has to become a bank, which means forgivable loans are a financial boon for Mississippi. Rogers said her office collects about $1 million each year from borrowers because the debt is only forgiven under two circumstances – death or permanent disability. 

“We have some on the books that date back to the late 1970s, before I was even born,” Rogers said. 

“We could continue to service those loans forever and ever and ever,” she added. 

While the state financially benefits, forgivable loans do little to address labor shortages. 

Rogers told the board this is particularly true for the state’s nursing shortage because it is not caused by a lack of Mississippians who desire to go to nursing school. In fact, nursing schools, lacking faculty, are forced to turn away thousands of applicants each year. 

“Students want to go to nursing school, they want to be nurses, but there’s still a nursing shortage in Mississippi,” Rogers said. “So what’s causing that shortage?” 

With the board’s preferred approach, a stipend program, Rogers said the state will see an immediate benefit. The stipend might even attract nurses from across the country, seeking help paying off student debt, to work in Mississippi hospitals.

“They’re immediately going to see students out working in the areas,” Rogers said. 

Barney Daly, a board member who is the president of North Metro at Trustmark National Bank, asked if there is a downside to a loan repayment or stipend program. 

Rogers replied that these programs don’t help students pay for school on the front end. 

After about a half hour of discussion, Turcotte called for a vote. He asked if the board wanted to talk about the proposal further and members seemed surprised no one had more to say, given how robust the discussion had been to that point.

“Is the horse dead?” Rogers asked. 

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

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