(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)
(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)

High school students on the Gulf Coast and in Jackson for the first time have a unique opportunity — a chance to apply for financial aid to take college courses.

Jackson State University and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College were chosen by the U.S. Department of Education to participate in an experimental pilot progra

m that allows high school juniors and seniors from low-income families to receive a Pell Grant to take college courses, or participate in dual enrollment.

U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell visited Jackson State on Thursday to announce the initiative and to express his hopes that one day, all high school students will be eligible for financial aid to take college courses.

“Dual enrollment until today has excluded students who need financial assistance to meet some of the costs to enroll in these programs,” Mitchell told a packed room in Jackson State’s School of Engineering building. “For students for whom college going is not inevitable, it’s important to have a visible, experiential pathway so the idea of going to college isn’t a foreign one, it’s a natural one.”

Jackson State and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College are among 44 colleges in 23 states to be selected for the program.

With statistics showing that less than 10 percent of children born in the lowest income category complete a bachelor’s degree by age 25, the point of the program is to see whether college access earlier in life has a positive outcome for this group.

“That means the time and money you spend in college is less,” Mitchell said. “It’s an accelerator. It’s also a way of breaking down cultural barriers and helping students see and know ‘You can do this work, you are college material, and you’re going to do that starting now, not tomorrow.’”

Murrah High School senior Isaiah McCoy explains the benefits of receiving financial aid to take college courses while in high school.
Murrah High School senior Isaiah McCoy explains the benefits of receiving financial aid to take college courses while in high school.

Numbers are small in the first year of the program, with only 33 Jackson students from all of the district’s high schools participating and a smaller number on the coast. Students from the four coastal counties are eligible to participate.

“We want to really explain to the students what the possibilities and the responsibilities are,” said Carmen Walters, executive vice president for enrollment management at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Students must fill out a federal financial aid application to receive an amount based on need. At the community college, students must have at least a 3.0 GPA to participate in dual enrollment. Jackson State requires a 2.5 GPA and a written recommendation from a principal or guidance counselor.

Murrah High School seniors Isaiah McCoy and Myia Bolden are taking courses at Jackson State this year through the dual enrollment program.

“This program gives me the opportunity to be a leader to those who want to be part of this program in the future,” Bolden said. “It also helps my parents pay for school.”

McCoy highlighted the opportunity to get a glimpse of college life.

“I believe there are a lot of great benefits … so when you go to college and graduate from high school you won’t have to have such a strenuous year coming in as a freshman,” McCoy said. “I think it’s great opportunity to get a feel for the college and understand ‘this is how you have to be to be successful in college.’ Because high school and college are two completely different things.”

The experimental program will last three years, and both institutions plan to continue expanding to more high school students each year.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.