A task force of public officials met behind closed doors last year to discuss revamping Mississippi’s college financial aid programs, and lawmakers next week will begin debating a bill written based on the group’s private discussions.

The 16-person task force, which met several times last year outside public view, was comprised of multiple public officials, including an associate commissioner from the Institutions of Higher Learning, the interim executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board, two community college presidents, and the chair of the little-known state board that oversees financial aid.

A bill has been filed in the Legislature based on the group’s proposal and a joint hearing has been scheduled for next week. 

The president and CEO of Woodward Hines Education Foundation, the nonprofit that convened the task force, declined to discuss the details of the proposed overhaul until after the hearing, citing “the code of confidence we promised members.”

“It won’t be the Mississippi One Grant, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Woodward Hines CEO Jim McHale told Mississippi Today, referring to the controversial 2021 plan that would have resulted in Black and low-income students losing thousands of dollars in state financial aid for college. That proposal, which failed to gain any support from lawmakers, was also conceived largely in the dark — a point of contention among many critics.

The group’s meetings, undisclosed until now, are notable because the closed-door deliberations inspired legislation that aims to spend taxpayer dollars. Yet no students who receive financial aid or will be affected by the proposed changes were invited to attend. 

Mississippi Today has obtained records from the task force, including a letter McHale sent in May 2022 inviting members to join that details its goal: to “explore how Mississippi’s student financial aid investments can be best leveraged to meet the economic development needs of the State.”

Jennifer Rogers, director of the Office of Financial Aid.

The task force met over the course of at least eight meetings moderated by HCM Strategies, a consulting firm brought in by Woodward Hines, which synthesized members’ discussions into a proposal. The task force approved the final proposal not by a vote, said Jennifer Rogers, a participant and director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, but “agreement by discussion.” 

According to a PowerPoint created by HCM Strategies, the proposal would substantially change two state aid programs aimed at helping students from low- and middle-income families afford college, while leaving the state’s most racially inequitable aid program virtually untouched. 

The Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students — called the HELP grant — would be reduced. The HELP grant currently pays up to four years of tuition at the state’s community colleges and public and private universities, no matter what institution a recipient attends. 

The task force recommended lowering the HELP grant for freshmen and sophomores to the cost of tuition at the community colleges, even if a recipient decides to go to a four-year university. The last two years of the HELP grant would cover the cost of tuition at the universities. 

HELP recipients, by and large, have preferred to use the generous financial aid award to attend four-year public and private universities rather than community colleges, according to OSFA’s annual reports.

The revised HELP grant would aim to push more recipients to attend community colleges, a change that Rogers said “the community colleges wanted to see.” 

The task force also included the presidents of Itawamba Community College and Mississippi Delta Community College, the executive vice president at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, according to HCM’s PowerPoint. 

The proposal made the most changes to the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant, or MTAG, which provides up to $500 a year to freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 a year to juniors and seniors. 

Those amounts would increase to $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, and eligibility would broaden to include Pell Grant recipients and part-time students. Students from families that make more than 200% of the median household income in Mississippi ($49,111 in 2021, according to the Census Bureau) would no longer be eligible. The requirement to get a minimum of 15 on the ACT would be removed. 

The goal of these changes to MTAG is to “expand workforce preparation,” according to HCM’s PowerPoint. To that end, the grant would be renamed “MTAG Works.” Students would also get a $500 “bonus” if they pursue degrees in a “high value pathway” as defined by the state’s workforce development office. 

A bill filed by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the chair of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, is virtually identical to draft legislation that Rogers wrote based on the proposal. In the bill, the “bonus” amounts were changed to be equal to a percent of the average tuition at public universities. 

If Scoggin’s bill becomes law, the new programs would go into effect next year. Sen. Rita Potts Parks, R-Corinth, who chairs the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee, told Mississippi Today she has filed identical legislation. She called for the joint legislative hearing next week.

There were no lawmakers on the task force but Potts Parks said she knew about the meetings. Each legislative session, Potts Parks said that IHL and the community colleges ask for changes to the state’s financial aid programs but up until now, every proposal has been too controversial to go forward. 

“I’m very proud of that group of individuals that came together,” said Potts Parks. “I will tell you, I never dreamed that they would be able to come to an agreement.” 

All told, the revamped programs would cost the state an additional $21 million on top of the existing programs, according to HCM Strategies’s PowerPoint, based on the estimated number of new recipients. 

The proposal does not address several existing issues with the way Mississippi hands out public money for college. It does not fix the eligibility “cliff” that prevents low-income families making slightly more than $39,500 from receiving the HELP grant nor would it make the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant, the state’s primary merit-based grant, more racially equitable. 

Though McHale said Woodward Hines’ staff were “the conveners” of the task force, he wouldn’t discuss the proposal prior to the hearings because “it wasn’t our plan.” 

But Woodward Hines has pushed it along the legislative process, helping to set up meetings between lawmakers and task force members. A calendar invite obtained by Mississippi Today shows that Woodward Hines’ registered lobbyist, John Morgan Hughes, scheduled a meeting on Jan. 10 in Scoggin’s office for a “Post Secondary Bill Walk Through.” 

Rogers, who presented draft legislation at that meeting, said Potts Parks, Scott Waller from the Mississippi Economic Council and Nick Hall from Speaker Philip Gunn’s office also attended, but their names aren’t listed on the calendar invite. 

“They were a driving force behind it,” Potts Parks said of Woodward Hines. “I mean, they’ve been a driving force behind trying to improve education for quite some time.” 

This is not the first time that attempts to revamp state financial aid in Mississippi have been less than transparent. The failed Mississippi One Grant — which Woodward Hines advocated against — was created by a committee of financial aid advisors that met outside public view

McHale invited higher education and workforce officials from across the state to participate in Woodward Hines’s task force after the One Grant failed to gain any legislative support last year. 

The task force met during the second half of last year and the discussion progressed from understanding state financial aid policy in Mississippi to “communication strategies” and “advocacy,” according to meeting minutes. 

Members heard from experts in higher education and workforce policy, but Rogers said that student recipients of state financial aid did not attend. The only explicit mention in the meeting minutes of recipient input came during the second meeting when the task force watched a video of “student voices.” 

At a Zoom meeting of the Post-Secondary Education Financial Assistance Board on Tuesday, the chair, Jim Turcotte, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the task force’s proposal. Turcotte was one of three financial aid board members who participated or were represented on the task force, but he said that he did not speak on their behalf. 

“I didn’t say, ‘this is what we want’ or ‘this isn’t what we want,’ but I did react when asked and sometimes when not asked,” Turcotte said. “I shared my opinions and asked my questions.” 

The joint legislative hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Jan. 24 at 9 a.m. at the Capitol in Room 204. Rogers said she plans to present the PowerPoint created by HCM. 

Editor’s note: The Woodward Hines Education Foundation is 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.