House lawmakers last week passed a bill that would dramatically revamp how Mississippi spends taxpayer dollars on college financial aid. 

The vote on House Bill 711, sponsored by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, marks the furthest a bill to change state financial aid has gotten in the legislative process since talks of redesigning the programs began in 2018. 

Supporters of the bill, including the Office of Student Financial Aid, say this effort is succeeding where prior ones failed because it was created by a coalition of powerful officials who, behind closed doors, were able to reach a consensus. What that looks like is, overall, less money for college for low-income students and an increased emphasis on workforce development. 

Critics of the bill have questioned whether that trade-off is worth the impact it’ll have on low-income students. In committee meetings and on the House floor, lawmakers so far have focused on how this bill will harm the bottom line of Mississippi’s five regional and historically Black universities. 

But these institutions might actually gain money under the proposal, according to an OSFA analysis. Instead, it’s low-income students at the state’s three top-tier research institutions who stand to lose the most dollars under the proposal. 

The bill will make big changes to two of Mississippi’s three state financial aid programs: The Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant, or MTAG, and the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, known as the HELP grant. 

The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant, unlike the other programs, does not consider family income. It’s based solely on ACT scores and GPA and is the state’s most racially inequitable program. Under the proposed bill, it would remain untouched.

Mississippi’s student financial aid programs are not stackable. This means students can only receive one grant at time, whichever one awards them the most money. For example, a student who gets a 30 on the ACT but comes from a family that makes more than $75,000 a year likely qualifies for both MTAG and MESG. But they would only receive MESG, because the grant is higher.

Currently, MTAG awards $500 per year for freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 per year for juniors and seniors. While it is intended to be a broad-based grant — the minimum ACT score required to get it is a 15, lower than the state’s average — it has a significant limitation. Low-income college students who are eligible for the full federal Pell Grant are excluded from receiving this award. This means that most MTAG recipients in Mississippi come from families that, on paper, can already afford to pay for college. 

The new MTAG, rebranded “MTAG Works,” would broaden eligibility to include full-Pell-eligible students and part-time students. It will also come with a new income cap. Students from families who make over the median family income, ($74,888 in 2022 for a four-person family, according to the federal government), would no longer be eligible. 

By expanding to include part-time students, supporters of the bill hope the new MTAG will be easier for adult students, who tend to go to college part-time while working full-time, to get. MTAG is the only undergraduate state aid program in Mississippi that does not have to be applied for within two years of college graduation. But recipients must be enrolled full-time, a requirement that excludes most adult students. 

The grant will also be increased. The award amounts under the bill would be upped to $1,000 for freshmen and sophomores and to $2,000 for juniors and seniors. Students who major in certain subjects deemed “high-value pathways” by the state’s workforce development office will receive an additional $500. It is unclear what majors will be considered “high-value pathways” or how the workforce development office will determine that. 

These changes would double the number of students who could get MTAG, according to HCM Strategists, a consulting firm that was hired by a Mississippi-based nonprofit to help write the proposal that became Scoggin’s bill. 

All this would entail Mississippi spending an extra $21 million in taxpayer dollars on state financial aid each year.

These changes are complicated and the final award would vary based on test scores, family income, and a student’s year in school. Here’s a sketch of how they might play out for certain kinds of students: 

A student from a family that makes more than $39,500 attending Alcorn State University with an ACT of 19:

Cost of tuition for four years: $31,476 

Current total state aid: $3,000 

New total state award: $6,000

A student with the same family income, attending the same school and with the same ACT score who majors in a “high-value pathway”:

Cost of tuition for four years: $31,476

Current total state aid: $3,000 

New total state award: $8,000 

A student whose family makes $250,000 a year attending Pearl River Community College full-time with an ACT of 27:

Cost of tuition for two years: $6,500

Current total state aid: $3,000

New total state award: $0

A part-time adult student attending Coahoma Community College:

Cost of tuition for two years: $6,400 or less

Current total state aid: $0

New total state award: $2,000

Though some studies have shown that MTAG is one of the state’s most inefficient college financial aid programs — one lawmaker remarked earlier this session that it can go to any student who “breathes air” — the Office of Student Financial Aid believes these changes will make the grant more effective. 

Education policy experts say the higher award amount might not be enough to help students afford college considering the increasing cost of college tuition in Mississippi. They also say the $500 “bonus” is too small an amount to have any effect on student behavior. 

MTAG recipients at four-year universities will gain far less money than HELP recipients stand to lose. Where some MTAG recipients who don’t major in a high-value pathway will gain $3,000 in college financial aid over four years, HELP recipients will lose an estimated $9,100 based on the average tuition at the four-year universities, according to a Mississippi Today analysis. 

HELP, the only financial aid program geared to low-income students in Mississippi, currently pays the full cost of tuition for all four years of college, no matter what institution a student attends. It is one of the state’s most effective programs, according to studies commissioned by OSFA. HELP recipients — students from families that make less than $39,500 a year – take more credit hours, have higher GPAs, and are more likely to graduate on time than their low-income peers who don’t receive other state financial aid. 

The grant is also the state’s most racially equitable. By and large, most HELP recipients — who have higher than average ACT scores based on HELP’s eligibility requirement of a 20 or higher — chose to go to four-year universities.

The bill seeks to re-route where these students attend college by converting the HELP grant into what’s commonly called a “2+2” program. It will reduce the award for freshmen and sophomores to the average cost of tuition at community colleges (roughly $3,300), but juniors and seniors will continue to receive the average cost of tuition at the four-year universities (roughly $8,900). 

This change means that future HELP recipients will lose thousands of dollars in financial aid for college. 

Here’s what that looks like for HELP recipients over the course of four years: 

A low-income student who goes to Mississippi State University for all four years with an ACT score of 28:

Cost of tuition for four years: $36,992

Current total state aid: $36,992 (estimated based on 22-23 tuition)

New total state award: $24,400

A low-income student who goes to Mississippi Valley State University for all four years with an ACT score of 34:

Cost of tuition for four years: $29,096

Current total state aid: $29,096 (estimated based on 22-23 tuition)

New total state award: $24,400

A low-income student who goes to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College with an ACT score of 20:

Cost of full-time tuition for two years: $6,600

Current total state aid: $6,600 (estimated based on 22-23 tuition)

New total state award: $6,600

The extent to which changes to the HELP grant will affect recipients at different universities in Mississippi will depend on a variety of factors, like the cost of tuition at the university they’re attending and whether they qualify for private institutional aid or scholarships.

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

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