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Lawmakers choose small increase in financial aid

 

Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

 

JACKSON -- The leaders of Mississippi's universities and community colleges had plans for a major overhaul of state-funded financial aid programs before the current legislative session. But lawmakers appear likely to adopt only a portion of the plan. 

 

The Education Achievement Council recommended in September that lawmakers revamp Mississippi's financial aid programs to make it easier for students to apply for financial aid and to give more money to poor students. 

 

However, enacting all the changes that the group considered would cost a projected $77 million. The state is spending only $28 million this year. 

 

Faced with that price tag, lawmakers are considering only a change that would cost an additional $3 million. 

 

That means Mississippi will still give most of its limited aid to students from more affluent backgrounds, even as poorer students face costs that have risen sharply in recent years. That's because the state's two largest aid programs are given out without regard for need and much of that money flows to students from households with incomes over $70,000 

 

"Only 15 cents of every dollar of financial aid allocated in Mississippi is based on need," said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Council. 

 

Average tuition at Mississippi's eight public universities is $6,329 this year, not counting room, board, books and other costs. Average tuition at the state's 15 community colleges is $2,376. 

 

One of those students trying to get by is Larry Strickland Jr. A Lambert native, Strickland is in his first year at Jackson State University, but has sophomore standing because he earned some college credit in high school and attended summer school. 

 

An elementary education major, Strickland gets about $1,000 from a federal Pell Grant, the main program that poorer students rely on in Mississippi. He also picked up a federal work-study job this semester. 

 

Strickland said money is tight in his single-parent family. He said he had hoped to go to the University of Mississippi or the University of Southern Mississippi, but chose Jackson State because it was "a little cheaper." 

 

Like many students, Strickland is making up the difference by taking loans. He knows that could mean years in debt. 

 

"My mother, she's been a school teacher for 18 years and she just finished paying off her loans," he said. 

 

Mississippi has three major financial aid programs. 

 

The largest is the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant, which gives $500 to freshmen and sophomores and $1,000 to juniors and seniors, as long as they scored a 15 on the ACT college test, attend full-time and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average in college. The state spent $13.7 million on the grants in the 2012 budget year. As much as half the money went to students whose families have incomes greater than $70,000. 

 

The second-largest program, the Eminent Scholars Grant, gives up to $2,500 to full-time students who score 29 on the ACT and had a 3.5 GPA in high school. The state spent $5.1 million on that program in 2012, with as much as 70 percent of recipients coming from households earning more than $70,000. 

 

The only program aimed at poorer students is the Higher Education Legislative Plan, known as HELP, which awards the cost of tuition to students who scored higher than 20 on the ACT, had a 2.5 GPA in high school and have family incomes less than $35,000. The state spent $3.2 million on HELP in 2012. 

 

Jennifer Rogers, director of financial aid programs for the state College Board, said aid programs haven't been adjusted since they were created in the 1990s. Then, tuition was much cheaper and federal Pell grants paid a greater portion of the cost of attending a university. 

 

"If we're trying to move the needle on producing more college graduates, why are we investing in those who are already going and completing when we could be investing in students who could attend and could complete with assistance?" Rogers asked. 

 

The Education Achievement Council proposed a broad menu of options for lawmakers. One would have let students who qualify for a full Pell Grant also to receive MTAG grants. Now, that's not allowed. 

 

The maximum federal Pell Grant award this year is $5,645. Any student whose family has an income of $24,000 or less qualifies for that full amount. But even with HELP, a full Pell grant and other aid, a student is likely to end up $3,500 short of the full cost to attend Ole Miss, including room, board, books and other expenses. 

 

Here's the problem: The College Board projects it would cost $27.9 million to give MTAG to all students who receive full Pell grants. 

 

Similarly, the council proposed moving the deadline to apply for HELP from the spring to the fall, which means college financial aid counselors could help incoming students apply. But moving the deadline is projected to cost $21.4 million, because so many more eligible students who now miss the deadline are expected to apply. 

 

What has a chance is increasing the income threshold for HELP. Senate Bill 2454 would raise the maximum income threshold to $39,500 next year and to $42,500 in 2016. The bill is projected to cost $1.5 million the first year and $3 million the next year. 

 

Senate Universities and Colleges Chairman John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, said he'd like to do more, but doubts lawmakers would approve funding. 

 

"I'd rather do something we could get done," he said.

 

 

 

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