A new proposal would seek to more than double the number of Mississippians who are eligible for state financial aid by expanding one of the state’s undergraduate financial aid programs. 

Under the as-yet-unnamed proposal, the award amounts of the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant – known as MTAG – would be increased to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of college, according to a presentation at the Postsecondary Education Financial Assistance Board on Monday. 

The requirement to maintain a 2.5 GPA and a minimum score of 15 on the ACT would be eliminated. So would a provision that excludes students who are eligible for the federal Pell Grant. Right now, the maximum award under MTAG is up to $1,000 a year for college juniors and seniors, but the proposal would double or possibly even triple that depending on a student’s income. 

All told, this would mean an estimated 37,800 Mississippians, including part-time, adult students who have long been excluded from receiving state money for college, would now be eligible for state financial aid. Right now, about 29,000 students receive state financial aid. 

The goal would be to align MTAG, which hasn’t been updated since it was created in 1995, with other efforts to develop the state’s workforce by increasing the number of Mississippians with college degrees, said Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Office of Student Financial Aid. 

As the number of high school graduates is set to decrease in Mississippi, Rogers said policy initiatives seeking to develop the state’s economy need to focus on adults who want to go back to college but can’t afford to on their own. 

“This truly comes down to an economic development issue,” Rogers said. “How can we position the most people to have the best opportunity in the workforce in Mississippi? We’re not going to do that by just focusing on the traditional high school graduates that we’ve been focusing on since 1995.” 

One thing makes this proposal different from many others that have tried but failed to get off the ground: No students would lose access to state financial aid if it became law. 

“We wanted to first do no harm,” said Scott Waller, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Economic Council. “So anyone who is currently on the grant system receiving financial aid would continue to do so, and more importantly would continue to do so whatever the rate currently is.” 

Past proposals have sought to limit, or shift, the amount of need-based state financial aid that is available for low-income students through the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP grant, but that proved politically unpopular last session. 

HELP is the state’s most expensive financial aid program, but also one of its most effective. It pays for all four years of college for students from families making less than $39,500. 

“Obviously there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for wanting to make any changes to HELP,” said Jim McHale, the president and CEO of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, which last year convened a taskforce of public officials who met in “confidence” to “explore how Mississippi’s student financial aid investments can be best leveraged to meet the economic development needs of the State.”

McHale said the new proposal comes out of a meeting the taskforce had this past August. He is hoping to use the fall to get feedback from key legislators and policymakers before introducing a final proposal closer to the session. 

Toren Ballard, a K-12 policy expert with Mississippi First, said, because the new proposal does not create any “losers,” the biggest obstacle will be convincing lawmakers the cost is worth it. 

“During the last session, you had people angry about HELP being cut, you had some people angry about rich kids losing access to MTAG and you still had to justify a higher overall price tag,” Ballard said. “You had all three of those things working against you. Now the only thing working against this plan is just the price tag, because no one is losing out.” 

It’ll take an estimated $31 million to fund the increased award amounts to newly eligible students, according to the Monday presentation. 

But the taskforce — armed with a Woodward Hines Education Foundation-supported study that shows the state could gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and decreased social spending if it increases the number of Mississippians with postsecondary credentials — is planning to ask lawmakers to take the long view. 

“It’ll ultimately grow our economy and in the long term pay for itself,” Waller said.

Jason Dean, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said the investment in state financial aid is a form of “workforce development,” which is also “the message of the day.” Dean is a member of the taskforce and sits on the post-secondary board. 

“Here’s the Jedi mind trick,” he said. “We’ve got to align our language to the language they’re espousing specifically around workforce training.” 

MEC and Accelerate Mississippi, the state’s office of workforce development, conducted a statewide listening tour last year to create a strategic plan to increase the number of college graduates among working-aged Mississippians as part of the “Ascent to 55%” initiative. 

“We’re never going to tell Mississippians not to go to college, not to attend community college and not to try to strive for educational attainment,” said Ryan Miller, Accelerate Mississippi’s executive director. “In fact it’s going to be the opposite.” 

So far, key leaders in the state’s higher education system seem to be on board. 

At the postsecondary board meeting Monday, Mark Keenum, a board member and the president of Mississippi State University whose thoughts on state financial aid have helped shape prior proposals, said he had heard from MEC leadership. 

“This is a high priority for the business community in the state to provide more funding for financial aid to increase our educational attainment for our state workforce, and I like it,” Keenum said. “I like it a lot.” 

Tyrone Jackson, a board member and the president of Mississippi Delta Community College, didn’t voice an opinion on the proposal but confirmed with Rogers that it would not result in students losing financial aid.

Though the taskforce is not proposing any changes to HELP, Rogers told the post-secondary board on Monday that the state financial aid office plans to separately request largely administrative changes to the grant. 

That would entail opening up HELP’s code section, which could result in more substantive amendments during the legislative session. 

“I fully understand the danger of opening a code section when you don’t have to,” she said.

Editor’s note: The Woodward Hines Education Foundation is a Mississippi Today donor.

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