Mississippi awarded $38 million in state-funded financial aid during fiscal year 2017, but more than half of it went to students from financially secure homes, a report by the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid shows.
Those coming from the lowest income households often are blocked from receiving one of the state’s primary grants — the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG) — because state law prohibits students who are eligible to receive a full Pell grant from also getting MTAG.
“So the state’s neediest students by law are excluded from MTAG,” said Jennifer Rogers, director of Student Financial Aid.
Pell grants are federally awarded money given to students seeking an undergraduate degree based on their financial need. To receive a Pell grant or state aid, students have to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines how much aid the student qualifies for.
For example, 42,000 Mississippians who filled out a FAFSA in academic year 2015-16 reported coming from a household that earns no income.
“They are absolutely, 100 percent guaranteed to be full Pell eligible,” Rogers said.
Another 94,000 came from homes earning between $0 and $30,000 a year. They too, likely would have qualified to receive a full Pell grant.
Together, students coming from these bottom two income brackets made up 66 percent of all students in the state who filled out a FAFSA in academic year 2015-16. While this 66 percent likely received federal aid, they are the same group that by law cannot receive MTAG.
Conversely, 56 percent of all state aid in fiscal year 2017 went to students coming from households that earn anywhere from $48,001 – $999,999, with 37 percent of that going to households making over $75,000 a year.
The remaining 44 percent was allocated to a state grant known as Higher Education Legislative Plan For Needy Students (the HELP grant). This is the only state aid grant that, “considers financial need as a factor for eligibility,” the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid report states.
“As the poorest state in the nation trying to pull up our neediest citizens, it’s concerning that 50 percent of our funds are going to families whose children would most likely already be going to college and most likely already going to succeed in college,” Rogers said.
The racial demographics of who gets state financial aid also don’t align with racial makeup in the state nor state university student bodies.
In 2017, African-Americans received 19 percent of all state aid grants with whites receiving 73 percent. U.S. Census data shows that 37 percent of Mississippians are African-American; data from the Institute of Higher Learning shows African-Americans also make up 37 percent of Mississippi’s eight public universities.
The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG), another prominent grant, goes only to students who have achieved a 29 on the ACT and maintained a 3.5 GPA. Last year, the state spent $6,395,750 on it.
“Well, where are those students [coming from]?” Rogers asked. “They’re at private school. They’re coming from affluent families. They’re in Madison schools, they’re in DeSoto County schools. You look at the school list of those students receiving MESG … 75 percent of them are coming from private schools.”
Total college cost exceeds Pell grant amount
Students who are eligible for a full Pell grant almost always receive it.
But that money “doesn’t come anywhere close to paying for total cost of college,” Rogers said.
A full Pell grant covers about 75 percent of tuition at a public university, said Stephen Brown of Get2College, a Mississippi nonprofit that helps students find funding for undergrads. That does not include housing, meal plans or textbooks.
Annual tuition at the University of Mississippi during academic year 2017-18 cost $8,190.00, according to its financial aid website.
The estimated total annual cost for one year — including, books, meals, housing and other expenses — was estimated to be $24,812.00.
During academic year 2017-2018, the most a student could receive through a Pell grant was $5,920 a year.
And while almost 44 percent of state student financial aid went toward HELP in 2017, the number of HELP grants awarded pales in comparison to that of MTAG.
Where 22,629 students were awarded an MTAG, HELP grants were given to 2,912 students.
Of all state-funded student financial aid grants awarded in 2017, 10 percent were HELP grants.
Funding for the program and the amount of awards it grants has grown significantly in the past five years after application requirements were changed to align with all other state grant applications.
Before 2013, students were required to take courses that did not align with what the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning recommends high schools use in their college prep curriculum to qualify for the HELP grant.
“Some of the courses that were in the curriculum weren’t even offered by (Mississippi Department of Education) anymore. So we went to the Legislature and said, ‘You need to do something. This curriculum isn’t working. And so they changed the curriculum and they aligned it with the (Institutions of Higher Learning) required (College Preparatory Curricula),” Rogers said.
At that time, the HELP application process also required the applicant to show two years of residency documentation and two years of family income documentation, when no other program did.
“When you have a low income student whose family situations are often insecure, it’s very difficult to get that kind of data,” Rogers said. “That’s a huge hurdle.”
That changed in 2014, when Rogers’ office asked the Legislature to make HELP application requirements parallel with requirements for all of the other programs.
From fiscal year 2013 to 2017, the number of HELP grants awarded grew from 918 to 2,912, the 2017 State-Supported Student Financial Aid Programs report shows.
“The (HELP) program is extremely successful, I believe, and I certainly want to see it continue. It’s going to benefit the state immensely. It just takes some forethought as far as funding is concerned,” said Jim Turcotte, chairman of the Mississippi Postsecondary Education Financial Assistance Board during a board meeting.The Postsecondary Board has authority over all of the state-funded student financial aid programs.
“Financial aid programs have two purposes”
The conversation about who state aid should serve and whether it should be overhauled is not a new one among the office of financial aid.
“We’ve brought it up many times, many years [to the legislature],” Rogers said. “It’s been before many task forces, but to change [MTAG eligibility requirements] would cost the state about $76 million because that’s how many students would qualify for MTAG if they removed that exclusion.” Under current legislative guidelines, any student who is eligible for state-funded student financial aid grants receives it.
The Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid is working with nSPARC, a data research center at Mississippi State University, to conduct a comprehensive data report on state-funded student financial aid. Once the study is completed, the plan is to talk with legislators, college presidents and stakeholders about what comprehensive student financial aid reform looks like, then take recommendations from those discussions to the legislature in 2019.
While some see the objective of state aid as two-fold, others say it should primarily serve the poorest in Mississippi.
“State financial aid programs have two purposes: to address students who have need, and also merit-based programs that are designed to keep the best and the brightest talent within the state,” said Al Rankins, president of Alcorn State University and member of the Postsecondary Board
Sen. David Blount, D-Hinds, said that financial aid should change to be based on need, not merit. He also said that the most effective way to make that happen in the short-term is by prioritizing funding the HELP grant.
“In the current budget climate, I don’t think you’ll see any dramatic increase in funding,” Blount said. “Therefore, we need to prioritize programs that have the most impact, and the HELP program has the most impact. It’s the program that makes the difference whether a student is able to afford college or not. It should come first in funding and last in cuts.”
Education leaders in the state House and Senate could not be reached for comment on this story.