A Mississippi college financial aid program intended for the middle class has helped children of millionaires pay tuition. 

But if the poorest students apply, they’ll be denied.

That’s due to a quirk of the law that makes Mississippi one of, if not the only, state in the nation with a college financial aid program designed to specifically exclude the lowest-income students, those who qualify for a full federal Pell Grant and whose families generally make less than $32,000. 

But the unusual nature of the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant isn’t widely known. The nonprofit Education Commission of the States, which tracks state-level education policy, determined the exclusion was unique years ago. 

Eddie Briggs, the Republican lieutenant governor who championed the MTAG’s creation in 1995, told Mississippi Today he didn’t realize other states don’t have a grant like it. The grant awards between $500 to $1,000 in tuition aid, a modest amount that hasn’t been increased in 30 years and makes a bigger difference to poor students than richer ones. 

Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, said he only learned MTAG excludes the poorest students by design after he was asked to handle legislation this session that would finally remove the prohibition, a change that’s due to the increased cost of college.  

“I think most legislators are trying to give all Mississippians some opportunity,” he said. 

The code section that sets MTAG’s eligibility requirements says the grant “shall be for Mississippi resident students from any Mississippi family whose prior year adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds the maximum allowed to qualify for full Pell Grant eligibility.” 

In practice, this results in Mississippi spending millions of taxpayer dollars each year on a program that benefits students who would likely go to college without the state’s help and whose families can already afford to pay — while intentionally restricting how much state aid is available to the poorest. 

There are roughly 90,000 full-Pell eligible students in Mississippi, according to the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid. But it’s hard to say how many of these students are currently barred from MTAG because they are too poor, because of the grant’s additional requirements, notably having an ACT score above 15 or a GPA higher than 2.5.

Some of these students may also receive state financial aid through other programs. But many are on their own when it comes to making up the gap between the amount of grant aid they receive from Pell and the average cost of tuition in Mississippi. This school year, the maximum Pell Grant award is $7,395, leaving on average more than $1,000 in unmet university tuition in Mississippi. 

Students who receive a partial Pell award can get MTAG, but DeLano noted that “even if you pancake them (the programs), it’s still not enough to cover the rising cost of tuition.” 

Multiple financial aid experts told Mississippi Today they were puzzled by the “Pell exclusion.” They haven’t encountered a program structured like MTAG, though some noted that other states use last-dollar scholarship programs — money to students who still have tuition bills after receiving federal or institutional aid — to achieve a similar goal. 

“It’d be like saying we’re opening a food pantry, but if you’re chronically hungry, you’re not able to access it,” said Catherine Brown, the senior director for policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network. “It’s just basically unfair.” 

Last year, just 8% of all MTAG recipients came from families that make less than $39,999, according to OSFA’s annual report. But nearly half of all dependent recipients were from families that make more than $100,000. 

Thirty recipients were from families that make more than $1 million. 

The disparities in MTAG recipients go even deeper. White students make up nearly three-quarters of the grant’s 17,600 recipients, and Black students comprise just 20%. 

“It seems punitive,” said Akil Bello, the senior director of advocacy and advancement at FairTest. “It’s basically forcing Black kids and Hispanic kids to get their money from the federal government while supporting middle-class white kids who aren’t poor.” 

The kicker, Bello and other financial aid experts say, is that the amount of tuition assistance awarded under MTAG is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of college today. 

The average in-state tuition in Mississippi is $8,564 per year. MTAG awards between $500 to freshmen and sophomores, and $1,000 to juniors and seniors.

“You’re not talking about a full-ride, half-ride,” Bello said. “That scholarship is doing nothing.”

While Mississippi excludes the poorest college students from receiving MTAG, the state counts funds spent on the grant to draw down federal welfare dollars, Mississippi Today previously reported

This session, lawmakers have filed bills to remove the Pell exclusion and expand MTAG to an estimated 37,000 students, including adult and part-time students. But doing so would require spending upwards of $30 million each year on college financial aid, an investment that may not fly with powerful lawmakers like Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg. 

When Senate Bill 2724 passed out of the Senate last week, Hopson was the only lawmaker to vote “present.” Three lawmakers voted against the bill. On the floor, DeLano said there were still some tweaks to work out. 

READ MORE: ‘Mississippi spends less on college grant aid than nearly every Southern state’

In committee meetings, lawmakers have asked if data exists to justify the increased spending. OSFA collects data on MTAG, such as who receives it and where they go to college, but the financial aid program has never been funded on performance. 

That’s not unusual, said Briggs, who pushed to create MTAG more than 30 years ago after he became the first Republican lieutenant governor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. 

“Funds are allocated quite a bit just on politics, not on performance, not on results and not even on need,” Briggs said. “In Mississippi, we created a lot of programs we didn’t necessarily need. But once you create them, you’ve got them forever.” 

It took Briggs a couple years to get MTAG passed, he recalled. Inspired by similar efforts in Georgia, Briggs said he wanted to create a program that would funnel state money for college directly to native Mississippians, not institutions that were increasingly trying to attract out-of-state students. 

Briggs also wanted to help students like him who came from blue-collar families. 

“It’s fine for non-residents to come here, but I don’t think that should be paid for out of the pockets of Mississippi taxpayers,” he said. “Should our taxpayers, some of the least-abled people in the nation, fund the children of other states getting an education?” 

At the time, Mississippi had the highest in-state tuition of any Southern state except Louisiana. When the program became law in 1995, the goal was to help middle-class students whose families were too wealthy for Pell but would still struggle to afford college. 

But Briggs said he couldn’t recall any discussions with other lawmakers about ensuring MTAG didn’t also go to students whose families could pay for college on their own. According to news reports, legislators discussed creating an income cap of $75,000 but scrapped it at the last minute. 

Even then, low-income students said it was unfair that they weren’t able to receive MTAG but wealthier students could. That argument didn’t persuade Briggs. 

“People who can afford college also pay taxes,” Briggs said. “That’s their money too. … Their children should be just as eligible as everybody else.” 

Also not a factor, Briggs said, was race.

“Not in the least,” he said. “None whatsoever. Not ever, even an itty bitty, teeny weeny bit. Just wasn’t, and it doesn’t, matter.” 

Adding a test score requirement immediately creates a “demographic question,” Bello said. There is a well-documented gap in ACT test scores by race. 

In 1995, the average composite score among Black students in Mississippi was 16.3 while the average score for white students was 19.9, according to ACT. This meant the requirement was just high enough that Black students would be eligible but more white students would benefit. 

If the goal of a financial aid program is to help more people geta degree, requiring students who’ve been admitted to college meet additional test score requirements is counterproductive, Brown from the National College Attainment Network said. 

“Students who have great promise should have the chance to fulfill their potential and reach their dreams,” she said. “If all you’re doing is helping the student who will go to college anyway, then you’re not accomplishing that really important goal.” 

DeLano said he would not be in favor of instituting an income cap on MTAG today, because even though wealthier families can afford to pay for college without state help, they also pay taxes. 

An income cap on MTAG was one of the unpopular elements of last year’s financial aid proposal that died in conference

“Those are Mississippians, and they’re taxpayers,” DeLano said. “In fact, those are the ones that are actually contributing to it. And I’m not trying to protect millionaires, but I do know that there are many families that from an income perspective would probably disqualify, but from a parenting side or whatever, they’ve told their children, ‘hey, you gotta go and pay for your own education.’” 

This is the double-bind of financial aid programs that support middle-class students, said Tom Harnisch, the vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

These programs don’t move the needle on a state’s educational attainment rate — but try telling that to a family who’s just lost out on help paying for college. 

“From a political perspective, aid to the middle class is a winner,” Harnisch said. “Middle-class families can see it on their tuition bill. And these people vote.” 

After creating MTAG, Briggs he was hoping lawmakers would expand the grant to help even more students. 

But lately, lawmakers have mainly discussed cutting the programs or limiting who can receive financial aid. This session is the first time in recent years a bill that would expand financial aid without cutting existing programs is being taken seriously. 

“The word ‘aid,’ if you take it literally, is helping people who need help,” Briggs said. “We need to be encouraging education as much as we can, not throwing money blindly at it.”

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