‘This is why people are leaving the state’: How state aid rules hinder college access for working-class families

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Andrew Krech, The Citizens' Voice via AP

Many outdated regulations written into state aid laws create barriers for lower and middle-class Mississippians trying to get a higher education for their kids or themselves.

It started with her husband’s injury at work. His doctor prescribed him opioids; taking them for pain morphed into a full-blown addiction and later, a controlled substance arrest.

After 18 years of marriage and middle-class living, Joyce Blankenship found herself kicking her husband out of the house, and along with him, her family’s only source of income. That same year her twin daughters were seniors in high school and preparing to go to college.

“He lost the business, lost our home, everything … that’s why we now really need financial aid to help my kids finish college. We get no assistance from him whatsoever.”

Because of the laws that bind how state-funded student financial aid can allocate money, adult learners, low-income families, the middle class and African-Americans are disproportionately prohibited from receiving assistance.

In fact, during 2017 more than half of state aid went to students from financially stable homes who were likely to attend college regardless of whether they qualified for financial aid, a Mississippi Today analysis showed.

Largely that’s due to many outdated regulations written into state aid laws that create barriers for lower and middle-class Mississippians trying to get a higher education for their kids or themselves. An overall lack of strategy while creating state student financial aid programs, as well as chronic underfunding to these programs, have also contributed to the problem.

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.

The State Aid Redesign Study Committee, which is made up of legislators, university and college presidents, and other stakeholders within the higher ed landscape have spent the past year reviewing these issues and weighing possible solutions – including a complete overhaul of the system, which State Financial Aid director Jennifer Rogers has recommended.

Meanwhile, people like Blankenship are left to either scrape together money for college or defer to working instead because of college’s unaffordability. All of this is happening in a state where 13 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2018 State of Mississippi Workforce and Innovation Act; the national average is 34 percent.

There are two primary stipulations that typically exclude adult learners from receiving any sort of aid: the state’s two highest awarding undergrad grants must be applied for within two years after graduating high school, and a student must take 15 hours a semester to keep receiving aid.

Blankenship is now pursuing her associate degree in nursing, but because she’s not right out of high school she can’t qualify for the state’s only need-based grant, which would cover the cost of her tuition.

This two-year rule also makes it impossible for juniors or seniors to receive meaningful assistance if they undergo a life-altering experience that causes them to lose the financial support putting them through college, like the death of a parent. It also means that students who want to transfer to a Mississippi university after their sophomore year can’t receive the two most generous grants, making that transition impossible for some.

For example, one of Blankenship’s daughters, an honors business college student who attends college in Alabama, wants to transfer to a Mississippi university, but can’t because it’s too expensive without the state’s need-based grant, and she’s now passed the window of time that would allow her eligibility.

Blankenship’s other daughter, who is enrolled at a Mississippi university, was able to receive state aid for her sophomore year, but could only receive one grant because of a decision made during the 2017 legislative session that affected about 3,830 students.

By law, neither of her daughters would have been able to receive the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG) because the law states that those who are full Pell eligible may not receive it, meaning that some of the state’s neediest students are prohibited from receiving the state’s primary grant.

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.

Continued barriers for adults trying to go to college

Blankenship still manages to take classes, maintain a job and raise her 14-year-old son – but money is tight.

This kind of financial barrier keeps people like Eliot Sanford from going back to school and earning a degree that could significantly raise his income.  

Sanford works at a law firm in Jackson, but a few years ago wanted to go back to school to get his associate degree in computer programming technology from Hinds County Community College. An unofficial financial aid calculator on the college’s website led Sanford to believe that he could get his education paid for through state aid because of his current salary and family of four dependents.

After spending hundreds of dollars and countless hours on application expenses, Sanford got accepted to two community colleges before he found out that he wouldn’t be receiving any state aid.

A retirement fund he inherited knocked him out of the income bracket he’s currently in, disqualifying him for state aid. He also wouldn’t be eligible for aid to go to community college because he already has a bachelor’s degree.  

To qualify for any of the state’s undergraduate grants, you have to be a first-time degree seeker.

Currently, the only state aid available for bachelor degree holders is for higher degrees such as Master’s, not an associate degree.

“I really entertained the idea [of going to community college] but as I got in contact with financial aid at those schools, they eventually let me know that my status as a bachelor holder and my investment portfolio that I inherited disqualifies me because it’s money that I technically have in my ownership. But [the investment portfolio] is under penalty if I take it out and use it, so it’s not really money that I have. I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck. I’m struggling,”

Aside from these barriers, taking 15 hours a semester would be impossible while working a full-time job and raising a family, Sanford said. “You’d be cheating on your family or cheating on your job or both,” he said.

Also, state aid is only available for Fall and Spring semesters, so students like Sanford who would need to take classes year-round (or are enrolled in programs that require year-round courses) can’t get any assistance for Summer semesters.

Ultimately, Sanford judged the situation as a lost cause and decided to teach himself coding using free online resources.

“I think this is a big problem. This is why people are leaving the state. They feel like there aren’t opportunities for jobs because they can’t even get in the door for things like this. They feel like they have to go to Atlanta or Texas or Florida or New York or Silicon Valley. Just having that door closed really causes people to leave quickly,” he said.

Efforts to revamp State Aid  

The ever-escalating nature of these issues have brought the state aid system to its “tipping point,” said Rogers.

Last year, Rogers asked nSparc, a data research center at Mississippi State University, to conduct a comprehensive report measuring the effectiveness of state financial aid; throughout the year the State Aid Redesign Study Committee has been reviewing its findings.

At the most recent State Aid Redesign Study Committee meeting, Rogers presented the committee with a list of formal recommendations for overhauling the state aid system.

Her recommendations were broken down into three phases – the earlier recommendations being ones that can be implemented immediately and the latter being ones that will have to be slowly put into place so as to not affect students who are currently receiving aid.

One of the quick changes will be to move the deadline up for when students apply for and receive the state’s only need-based aid (Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, referred to as HELP). Historically applications have been due March 31 and awards are given out in early June.

“Students are receiving award offers from state aid only two months before they are to begin college, and that really is not early enough to impact college-going decisions,” Rogers said to the committee.

By contrast, the application deadline for MTAG is September 15.  

But perhaps the most transformational recommendation Rogers made was to remodel the state’s three primary grants into one main grant that awards students based on a sliding income scale instead of a strict cliff.

Currently, the HELP grant has a firm income cutoff – or cliff – to establish eligibility for who can receive it. A household can be bringing in no more than $39,500 to qualify for HELP, unless there’s more than one dependent living at home. So if a student is coming from a household that earns $40,000, that student is automatically disqualified from getting the HELP grant.

“I fully understand that this recommendation is dramatic and potentially contentious. MTAG and MESG [the state’s merit-based grant] have come to be treated much like entitlements in our state. This recommendation may not initially garner universal support, particularly from the institutions that benefit most from these programs,” Rogers said.

“Nevertheless …  as a steward of the state’s resources and a representative of all students at all institutions, I do stand by this as the most fiscally responsible, equitable and socially just path forward to ensure affordable college access for all Mississippi students,” she continued.

A single grant would award aid on a sliding scale of income instead of the cliff method, potentially meaning that the type of student who would currently only qualify for MTAG and receive $500 could start receiving more under this proposed model. During 2018 fiscal year, 18,097 students receive MTAG.

“I think for all of us there is much concern throughout this process about those low-income families who make too much to qualify for HELP. I bet you if you phased out MTAG and MESG … you can provide significantly more to Mississippi students,” said Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson.

And while some expressed optimism at the idea of a single grant system, others suggested that the change could create financial consequences for the state’s colleges and universities.

“I appreciate the smoothing out the funding cliff of the HELP grant, and I’m interested in knowing how many of the current MTAG recipients will get picked up and saved by that, because we’re talking about 20,000 students who are currently getting MTAG.  That’s a lot of people and I’m afraid that burden is going to be shifted to the institutions,” said Nora Miller, president of the Mississippi University for Women.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg

Study committee chair Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, also showed hesitancy with the idea of eliminating MTAG and MESG.

“The phase out of MTAG and MESG – one,  I wouldn’t support that and two, I don’t think  the Legislature is going to support that … But I do think the issues of [smoothing the HELP cut off cliff], I don’t know that that necessarily is going to fall flat. I think that may be received well enough,” Hopson said during the meeting.  

On Monday, Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, presented a bill to the senate universities and colleges committee that would expand the HELP grant and create a sliding award scale instead of the current cliff.  Under the proposed model, a student coming from a family earning $39,500 to $47,000 would get 66 percent of college tuition covered; a student from a family that brings in $47,001 – $55,000 could get 33 percent of college covered.

The bill made it out of the universities and colleges committee, but was double referred, which means that it had to also pass out of the Senate appropriations committee before it could be taken by the full body for a vote.

The legislation could have significantly opened up pathways for low and middle-income families, but it died in the appropriations committee.

For Sanford’s part, this is exactly the sort of thing that made him lose hope in the idea of going back to school.

“That’s what caused me just to give up on it, because they’re not going to get to it,” he said. “By the time they fix it, I’ll already be a programmer who’s been self-taught with an online community that’s free.”

Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this report.