Student financial aid programs may be terminated

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Ten Mississippi college student loan programs may be discontinued.

Institutions of Higher LearningThe Mississippi Post-Secondary Education Financial Assistance Board on Monday voted to request the Legislature repeal nine programs it considers “small, ineffective, outdated or misplaced state-supported Student Financial Aid programs.” The board also discussed ending funding or changing the requirements of the Critical Needs Dyslexia Therapy Forgivable Loan.

Currently, the state authorizes 37 different state financial aid programs. Three of those programs, the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant, the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant and the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, account for 76 percent of the funds awarded to students each year. The remaining 34 programs, which include the 10 considered by the board Monday, account for only 24 percent.

“What this means is, these programs are very small, serve a very select few small number of students and are administratively cumbersome to manage,” says Jennifer Rogers, state director of student financial aid.

Forgivable loans are made by the state to students in certain high-demand majors, such as nursing and teaching.  To receive the money, a student signs a contract to fulfill a service obligation after degree completion.  If the student completes the service obligation, the loan is forgiven or discharged.  If the student fails to complete the service, the loan becomes due with interest.

The programs recommended for repeal include:

• Southeast Asia POW/MIA Grant

• Public Management Graduate Intern Grant

• Assistant Teacher Forgivable Loan

• State Medical Education Forgivable Loan

• State Dental Education Forgivable Loan

• Health Care Professions Forgivable Loan

• Family Protection Specialist Social Worker Forgivable Loan

• Critical Needs Dyslexia Therapy Forgivable Loan

• Speech-Language Pathologist Forgivable Loan

• Graduate and Professional Degree Forgivable Loan

The Southeast Asia POW/MIA Grant was created in 1972 to assist the children of servicemen of the Vietnam War. Those children would have had to apply for the grant before they were 23 years old. No awards have been made since 1996 and no further awards will be made according to the requirements of the program.

Also in 1996, the Assistant Teacher Forgivable Loan was created. This loan had never been funded and no awards have ever been made.

The Graduate and Professional Degree Forgivable Loan carries the highest default rate. Since 1999, over 19 percent of those awarded are in delinquent or default standing.

State Sen. Josh Harkins

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Rankin

The Critical Needs Dyslexia Therapy Forgivable Loan, created in 2012, has been considered ” a set-up for failure,” says Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Rankin, who attended the meeting. Harkins is chairman of the universities and colleges committee of the state senate.

Graduate programs at William Carey University, Mississippi College and the University of Southern Mississippi are expanding to enroll the growing number of prospective students entering the masters program of dyslexic therapy, but the financial assistance board is concerned that the loan program cannot fulfill its intended purpose.

Students are signing loan contracts with the state, which requires them to work as full-time dyslexia therapists in a public school district, but in turn are having trouble finding full-time positions because school districts cannot fund them, explains Rogers. If students  aren’t hired as full-time therapists, they are required to pay the loan in full plus a 5 percent penalty.

Forty-one students have been awarded the loan since 1999. Thirty-five of those students are using their in-school, grace and deferment periods to find jobs, says Rogers.

“Either we change the law to allow them to teach some dyslexia therapy along with other classes or we stop putting the money into this program and look into putting it into another program, said Harkins.

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson

Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who is on the state senate’s education committee, recommended the board alter the requirements rather than discontinue the loans.

“They don’t have to be full-time instructors. They can be reading instructors to an existing program for third graders and younger. Because there are plenty of jobs for those people,” said Blount.

Dr. Ben Burnett, board member and Dean of the School of Education at William Carey University says the issue is important to him personally because it will affect the students enrolled in the program at his school. However, he supports the decision to review the dyslexia therapy loan program.

The financial assistance board’s recommendations will be considered by the Legislature during its 2017 session. Until the Legislature acts, the board cannot estimate how much money the changes would save. Rogers assured the board that the operation would be more streamlined and programs will be easier to understand and more beneficial for students.