The Senate Appropriations committee on Tuesday stripped a sweeping House college financial aid bill of changes that would expand eligibility to adult and part-time students. 

The committee also voted to reduce awards under Mississippi’s only need-based aid grant from full tuition for all four years at in-state institution to $7,274, the cost of annual tuition at the least expensive university, which is Mississippi Valley State University

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, the chair, read out the changes to House Bill 771 yesterday. No other lawmakers on the committee said anything about the bill. 

“Are there questions?” Hopson asked. Hearing none, he moved to a vote. 

The move signals that the final version of House Bill 711 will likely be worked out in a closed-door conference. At least three competing versions of the bill have been suggested throughout the session. 

As originally introduced by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, House Bill 771 would have expanded the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant to full-Pell-eligible students and adult and part-time students, and doubled award amounts under the program. The ACT score requirement of 15 or higher would be removed, and students from families that make more than 200% of the state’s median household income would no longer be eligible. 

These changes would lead to 17,000 more students receiving state financial aid, a consulting firm estimated

In a more controversial measure, Scoggin’s version also would have reduced awards under the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students so that it no longer would pay full tuition for all four years of college regardless of what institution a student attends. Instead, the first two years of the award would be equal to the average tuition at the state’s two-year community colleges. 

Hopson told Mississippi Today that these changes have sparked a “fairly hearty disagreement” between representatives from the four-year universities and the community colleges who are competing for HELP recipients and HELP dollars.

The community colleges are in favor of this change, because it will incentivize more HELP recipients to attend two-year institutions, and the four-year universities want HELP to stay as it is. By and large, HELP recipients use the generous award to attend four-year universities. 

Hopson said his amendment was an effort to keep HB 771 alive so there can be more discussion. 

“It is a little bit of a compromise, I guess, but this has still got some work to be done,” he said. 

Hopson added that he hopes to bring the universities and community colleges together to discuss the bill before conference. 

“When you deal with these things … you need opportunities to sit down together face-to-face and go over options,” he said. “We typically hear from one group as opposed to the other group and are never really getting those groups together.” 

Last week, the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee voted to make a different set of changes to the bill. That version would have removed any changes to the HELP grant and kept the revisions to MTAG. This change, called a committee substitute, wasn’t uploaded to the Legislature’s website.

But last week’s version of the bill would entail increasing spending on state financial aid. So does Scoggin’s proposal, which would increase the budget for the Office of Student Financial Aid by an estimated $21 million.  

Jennifer Rogers, the director of OSFA, said her office is supportive of Scoggin’s original proposal and comfortable with not making changes to the HELP grant. 

“I very much hope that meaningful changes to the programs can be made to promote effectiveness and efficiency,” she said, “and I am still hopeful that that is a possibility.” 

Education policy experts like Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director of Mississippi First, were chastened by the changes made by the Senate Universities and Colleges. 

Ballard said Hopson’s proposed reduction to the HELP grant is better than Scoggin’s original proposal simply because it is not as large a decrease in awards. Under Scoggin’s bill, HELP recipients at the universities would lose an average of $11,200 in financial aid over the course of four years. Hopson’s proposal means these HELP recipients would lose an average of $6,504 over four years. 

All told, this would save the state roughly $1.4 million million a year in spending on HELP, according to a Mississippi Today analysis. 

“I don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve,” Ballard said, “because the savings are very marginal.” 

Ballard’s other issue with Hopson’s proposal is that it does not make any changes to MTAG, a program he wants to see updated. MTAG has not been significantly amended since it was created in the late 1990s. 

“We have a great opportunity to revise a grant program that doesn’t have any sort of value-add for the state,” he said. “It’s a handout of $500 to $1,000 to middle to high income families that doesn’t give us any return on investment. By scrapping all these changes to MTAG … we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot.”

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

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