Legislature cuts state’s college grant program

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College students receiving more than one grant from the state will be limited to only one next school year under a new rule passed by the Legislature.

Lawmakers included language in the final version of the appropriations bill for the state’s financial aid program stating that “no student should receive undergraduate grant aid through more than one state-supported undergraduate program in the same term of enrollment. If a student is eligible for aid through multiple grant programs, the student shall be awarded from the program that awards the larger sum.”

Mississippi Today

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, a conferee on the bill, said the idea came from a meeting with his House counterpart, Rep. Charles Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, and financial aid officers from the Institutions of Higher Learning.

“We … discussed some of the concerns about overall funding for financial aid in the state. We’ve had a shortfall in the past which has caused concern about how the money should be spent when there are cuts or when there’s less funding than is actually being requested by students,” Hopson explained. “One of the recommendations that was brought forward was to look at preventing students from getting two of the state’s grants.”

Hopson said the elimination of the “stacked” grants will save the state between $1 million and $2 million. The bill also would require colleges and universities to check each semester that students are keeping the required GPA to receive a grant, which could save additional money. Before, they were checking annually, Hopson said.

The new limitation will impact about 3,400 students, and the GPA check each semester is expected to impact another 430 students.

Demand for state aid has increased recently, particularly for the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP), the state’s only merit and needs-based program. This school year, demand exceeded available funds by about $11 million.

“It is a good news story that more Mississippians are going to college to earn a degree,” said Jennifer Rogers, director of the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid. “Unfortunately, the growth in college-going has resulted in a costly increase in demand for state aid. We look forward to working with the Legislature and postsecondary institution leaders to identify a sustainable solution for financial aid.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Read pointed out that recipients of the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG) are high-performing students who would be eligible for other scholarships and grants from private sources and schools.

However, one student who received the MESG grant along with another grant said the ability to stack the grants was one of the primary reasons he chose to stay in state and attend the University of Mississippi.

Hernando native Adam Flaherty, a senior at Ole Miss, said he was also considering Ivy League schools.

“It’s not going to affect me since I’m on the way out the door but … (for younger students) I think it completely changes their personal finances. They were sold on coming to the university with the idea they’d have the full amount of both of these grants,” Flaherty said. “They’re potentially out thousands of dollars.”

Sophomore Jordan Malone of Madison said the two state grants she receives “make everything doable.”

And because the grants are processed so late in the year, she said, she takes out student loans to cover the cost upfront then pays off the loans when she receives the grants. Now, she’s looking at more debt, and a recent medical diagnosis has upped her expenses due to medications and doctors’ visits.

The state offers five grants for qualifying students: the MESG; the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG); the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students (HELP); the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers and Firemen Scholarship (LAW); and the Nissan scholarship.

University of Mississippi Director of Financial Aid Laura Divin-Brown said her office was notified of the changes by IHL on Monday.

The news came at a time when the financial aid department was “right under the wire,” she said. Each year around April 1, the school sends out individualized packages to students and prospective students which detail tuition costs, financial aid for which they qualify and other information to help determine a true cost of attendance for the upcoming school year.

“We actually didn’t know this was coming so we couldn’t analyze its impact,” Divin-Brown said. “We just had to implement it.”

Divin-Brown said she could not speak to how many currently enrolled students will be affected by the changes, but her staff changed hundreds of prospective students’ packages so they would accurately affect the amount of grant money they were eligible for.

“We’re trying to make sure that the people get good information,” Divin-Brown said. “We’re going to have people calling, saying ‘Where is this second grant?’”

The Office of Financial Aid sent emails this week to students and their families in an attempt to prepare them as soon as possible, Divin-Brown said.

“Anybody we could tell, we went out and told them,” she said.

Her office also set up a call center to help explain the changes and shared the information with other offices at the university in case students reach out to admissions or the Bursar’s Office for an explanation.

The university likely won’t know how much the changes affect the school until fall enrollment information is available, she said, but students may have to look for other ways to cover the money they previously received from additional grants.

“Any time a grant program is removed from our suite of offerings, what it does is displace towards loans,” Divin-Brown said. “It will go in the direction of more borrowing just to fill in that gap.”