The House Colleges and Universities Committee advanced a bill Wednesday to increase award amounts and expand eligibility to more Mississippians under the state’s largest college financial aid program. 

Under House Bill 994, adult, part-time and low-income college students would be able to receive the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant. All told, an estimated 37,000 more Mississippians, many who don’t receive any form of state financial aid for college, would be eligible for MTAG. 

Depending on a student’s income and academic year, the bill would increase MTAG award amounts to a maximum of $2,000 a year. This would be the first time the Legislature has increased MTAG awards since the program was created in the 1990s to benefit middle-class Mississippians who aren’t eligible for the federal Pell Grant. 

“It opens it up to every Mississippian out there,” said House Chair Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the bill sponsor. “From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich, there is some benefit.”

Though the bill has broad support, Scoggin said it faces a major hurdle: The cost. To fully fund the program, lawmakers would need to greenlight upwards of $30 million in additional spending. Last year, Mississippi spent just under $10 million on MTAG. 

But Scoggin is hoping to convince lawmakers to see the changes as an investment in Mississippi’s workforce. He said it doesn’t matter how much the state of Mississippi spends on workforce development programs if potential students can’t afford to attend. 

“My argument would be, very simply: Education is the future,” Scoggin said. “We’ve got to do something to help people go to college.” 

During the committee meeting, Scoggin told members the bill is supported by community colleges and universities whose disagreement last year was one reason his proposal failed last session. That plan also sought to overhaul the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP, grant. 

The Mississippi Economic Council is also supporting this bill, which Scoggin worked on closely with the Office of Student Financial Aid and its director, Jennfier Rogers. After the committee meeting, multiple lawmakers came up to Rogers to tell her they supported the bill. 

Rogers said that she worked on the proposal with a taskforce to set higher MTAG award amounts without increasing the overall cost of the program too much. Though it’s hard to say if the increased award amounts would be enough to affect student behavior, Rogers said studies have shown increasing grant aid has a positive impact on college graduation rates

“I wish we could increase them more,” she said. “I think the award amounts need to be larger. But this is a reasonable first step.” 

MTAG has lost significant buying power since it was created in 1995. 

That year, the award amounts under MTAG for freshmen and sophomores covered roughly 10% of the average four-year, in-state tuition, room and board, and 20% for juniors and seniors, according to an analysis of federal data. In fall 2021, MTAG covered 2% of tuition, room and board for freshmen and sophomores, and 5% for juniors and seniors. 

Scoggin said he doesn’t know yet where the money would come from to fund the bill, and that it will face competition from other initiatives. 

“I think this is a priority, but someone else may think roads and bridges are a priority or someone else may think expanding Medicaid is a priority,” he said. 

Scoggin said Republicans need to balance tax cuts with programs that can help Mississippians take personal responsibility. 

“We’re trying to limit the government, but in doing that, we’re still trying to get people into that workforce development,” he said.

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