Some education, nursing and veterinary medicine students and graduates began receiving letters this month from the Institutions of Higher Learning telling them their student loans can’t be forgiven this year.
The move to nix certain individuals’ eligibility for loan forgiveness comes after the onslaught of budget cuts that left the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid at the same funding level as last year but with far more eligible applicants in the 2016-2017 year. Officials estimate demand to exceed available funds by $11 million.
Sheila Gaudet, a special education teacher in Hattiesburg, received one of those emails June 7. She is pursuing a master’s at the University of Southern Mississippi and relied on the Teacher Loan Repayment forgiveness program last year to help her afford the costs.
The Teacher Loan Repayment program assists those teaching in a critical shortage district or teaching a critical subject area, which includes special education, math, science and foreign languages.
“It’s disappointing, and it definitely makes a difference,” Gaudet, a single parent of two, said. Last semester approximately $330 of her loan was forgiven, which she said as a single parent on a teacher’s salary made an impact.
IHL also says no loan forgiveness funding will be awarded for certain school counselors and administrators, graduate teachers, health care professionals, minorities in veterinary medicine and stipends for nursing teachers.
Brad Pressley, a science teacher in North Mississippi, has had a total of $6,000 in undergraduate debt forgiven through the program. The 2016-2017 year was supposed to be his third year getting $3,000 forgiven.
“It’s not really going to affect my how I spend my money very much, but what it will do is kind of have a mental impact on me. I know several other teachers who live in North Mississippi, an hour from the Tennessee and Alabama state line, and I hear how much better they get treated,” Pressley said. “It really got me thinking, ‘Well, my state’s not really on my side here.’ ”
The board that oversees state financial aid also made several other adjustments that affect the loan forgiveness programs, including changing the definition of “full-time student” from a student taking 12 hours per semester to 15 hours. This decreases the number of students eligible to participate in the program.
“Defining a full-time student with 15 credit hours rather than 12 credit hours encourages more students to ‘Finish in Four,’ whether that is four semesters of community college or four years at a university,” said Jim Turcotte, chair of the Mississippi Postsecondary Education Financial Assistance Board.
The board also made adjustments to the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP), the state’s only merit and needs-based aid program. It provides full tuition to qualified students for up to five years. IHL officials say it has experienced the greatest increase in eligible applicants as “more low-income students demonstrate college readiness and eligibility for state aid.” It approved freezing the income threshold at $39,500 (as mandated by the state Legislature), clarifying that all HELP recipients must complete the high school core curriculum and reducing the length of eligibility from 10 semesters to 8 semesters.