How Mississippi’s financial aid programs reached a ‘tipping point’

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

The State Aid Redesign Study Committee (led by Sen. Briggs Hopson R-Vicksburg) has met four times since October but has not yet agreed upon major changes to state aid.

It was nearly by chance that Ainsley Ash found the grant that cemented her going to Ole Miss.

No one told her she would qualify for the state’s only need-based student financial aid. No one even told her it existed.

“I kind of just found it on the (student financial aid) website. I was very excited when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I would qualify for this. I have a single mom, of course I would,’” she remembers thinking.

Now an honors college sophomore double majoring in public policy and psychology, Ash reflects on that experience as a problematic one.

“I remember actually telling my counselor, ‘I’m so excited I found this tuition grant and I get it just for being low income,’ … Whereas I look back now and I think, ‘Why was I telling her about it and she not telling me?’” she said.

Although a significant information gap still exists for students who could benefit from the Higher Education Legislative Plan (HELP) grant but don’t know about it, the Office of Student Financial Aid has been conducting a marketing campaign to help close it. Since 2013, the number of grants awarded has grown from 918 in FY 2013 to 2,912 in FY 2017. As the state’s only need-based grant, HELP offers to cover tuition for students who are eligible.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Student financial aid director Jennifer Rogers asked the data research center at Mississippi State University to measure the effectiveness of financial aid in the state. The State Aid Redesign Study Committee will decide what to do with the findings. 

The growth of the HELP grant is just one of the factors that have brought state aid to a “tipping point,” said Jennifer Rogers, director of student financial aid.

“Unfortunately there’s been no overall strategy for the creation of state aid programs in the state. So we have programs that were created 20 plus years ago that really have never been updated. And then we have programs that have been created in the last four or five years that really don’t intersect or interplay well with programs that were created a long time ago,” Rogers said.

Throughout the past 20 years, 25 different forgivable loan programs have been created by the legislature, usually in an attempt to recruit people into careers like teaching that are experiencing shortages. Typically, the loan would agree to cover part or all of a student’s tuition if that student agreed to work in a shortage area for a certain amount of years after graduating.

But up until recently, no one knew whether any of these loans were effective.

In addition to that, most of these loans aren’t funded anymore. During fiscal year 2019, five of the state’s 22 forgivable loans received funding.

Aside from those forgivable loans, the state also administers three main grants: HELP is the state’s only need-based grant; Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG) is the state’s merit-based grant. In order to receive it, students must receive a 29 on their ACT and have a 3.5 GPA. Its goal is to keep Mississippi’s best and brightest in the state.

The Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG) is the state’s primary grant, awarding the most amount of grants every year. However, some say this grant has become ineffective because, with the current budget, the amounts that it can afford to award recipients are almost negligible within the context of college costs.

Freshmen and sophomores receive up to $500 per academic year through MTAG; juniors and seniors receive up to $1,000. Tuition alone at the University of Mississippi costs $8,550.00; total estimated costs for in-state residents is $19,286.00

“We have a number of programs on the books that are funded each year but the programs have grown in such a way that they are unsustainable with the current budget,” Rogers said.

That’s why Rogers asked nSparc, a data research center at Mississippi State University, to conduct a comprehensive data report measuring the effectiveness of state financial aid.

The first state aid study ever conducted aimed to answer three main questions. In short, these were the answers:

·  Do students who receive state aid grants have better outcomes after college than those who don’t? Yes.

· Does the state’s merit-based grant increase in state enrollment of high achieving students?   No.

· Do the people who receive forgivable loans aimed at solving shortages actually stay in that field after completing the service agreements?  Yes.

Now, it’s up to Rogers and the State Aid Redesign Study Committee (led by Sen. Briggs Hopson R-Vicksburg) to decide what to do with these findings.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Right, Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, leads the State Aid Redesign Study Committee. 

The committee has met four times since October but has not yet agreed upon any major changes that can be implemented with state aid.

Jim McHale, study committee member and CEO of Woodward Hines Education Foundation — which helps students achieve higher learning credentials — commended Rogers and Hopson for steering this overview of state aid.

“It has been over 20 years since state financial aid has been reviewed. I think we’ve got to keep in mind we’re the poorest state in the nation and we’ve got students, on average, who are graduating with student debt of $29,384, and we have one of the highest student loan delinquency rates in the United States,” McHale said.

He added that thinking about state aid reform within the context of workforce development is “critically important.”

“If we want to think about our future workforce needs of this state, we’ve really got to be looking at how we can help more people pursue that post-secondary degree or certificate,” McHale said.