For years, community colleges in Mississippi have been working with local governments and nonprofit partners to provide free tuition for students. Jim Hood wants to take this model statewide.
In an interview with Mississippi Today, the Democratic nominee for governor outlined his workforce training initiatives intended to make Mississippi more competitive.
Hood also unveiled his plans at a news conference at Itawamba Community College on Thursday. He faces Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the November general election. Reeves unveiled his workforce training plan earlier this summer.
Hood, currently attorney general, wants to launch a state-funded program that would provide tuition-free community college to Mississippi’s high school graduates. The program would operate as a “last dollar scholarship,” meaning it only covers what’s left of tuition after a student receives scholarships and financial aid. Eligible students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA in four consecutive 15-hour semesters. He estimates the program would cost between $6 million and $8 million, paid for from the state’s general fund.
“For six to eight million bucks, we’re crazy not to do that,” Hood said. “That’s chump change. I brought in more than that every year in drug cases.”
There are 15 community colleges in Mississippi, and this school year the average tuition costs $1,516 per semester, according to the Mississippi Community College Board. Many of these schools are already participating in tuition assistance programs.
In East Mississippi, the Meridian Community College Foundation guarantees tuition to students who graduate from public schools in Meridian or Lauderdale County, or are homeschooled in Lauderdale County. Eligible students receive four semesters of community college tuition-free as long as they maintain a 2.0 GPA and take at least 15 hours a semester. Like the other programs in the state, the foundation pays for the remainder of tuition not covered by scholarships or financial aid a student is eligible for.
At Itawamba Community College in northeast Mississippi, students from Benton, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Monroe and Pontotoc counties can have their tuition paid for through a county tuition grant program.
It’s paid for by funds set up by county supervisors for each county, said Terry Bland, financial aid director at Itawamba. Local foundations manage the funds, which means Itawamba bills the foundations directly, he said.
To receive this benefit, students must be a resident of any of those counties, take the ACT, and apply for federal financial aid. The grant pays for whatever is left after students receive scholarships or aid, Bland said. Last year 362 students took advantage of the program.
Similar to the Meridian program, Itawamba students must enroll at the college immediately after high school, maintain a 15-hour course load and 2.0 GPA for four consecutive semesters to have their tuition paid, Bland said.
“The advantage is for those students whose parents make too much money for them to qualify for federal aid but don’t make enough to write out a check to pay for tuition, this will at least pay tuition,” Bland said. “With us having Fulton and Tupelo campuses, most students can live at home. It could drastically reduce the cost.”
This is a point Hood stressed — whether a student just wants to earn an associate degree or continue on to a four-year college, two years of their higher education could be paid in full.
“If you want your kids to go to a four year college, it’s a lot less debt,” Hood said.
Tennessee launched its own statewide program, Tennessee Promise, in 2015. The Mississippi Legislature has tried to roll this out on a statewide level before — in previous years, legislators have filed several bills to make higher education tuition free, though conditions varied by bill. Most didn’t make it far in the legislative process.
Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, may have gotten the farthest with a 2014 bill that would have provided free community college tuition to Mississippi students with a 2.0 GPA or higher. The bill passed out of the House with only three lawmakers voting against it, but died in the Senate when it failed to pass out of committee.
In north Mississippi, the county tuition program already in place was very cost effective, Turner said. Had the bill passed, he estimated at the time that it would cost the state around $7 million to $8 million once fully implemented.
“We need an educated workforce,” Turner said. “Every industry that I’ve talked to, you ask them what their biggest problem is and that’s it, you need a trained workforce.”
Turner said he filed the bill on behalf of Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE foundation, a nonprofit community foundation that promotes quality of life issues in northeast Mississippi.
Whitfield said CREATE pushed for a statewide program several years ago because it would have been a “good opportunity for Mississippi to make a statement about the importance of college and community college because of the ease of access and lower cost for some of these children.”
“We wanted a lot of people who normally would not have gone to college to have an opportunity to get skills,” he said.
When asked whether it was realistically possible to get the Legislature to pass a bill like this if he were elected governor, Hood said he was confident he could work with whoever is in the Capitol in January. Although Reeves, Hood’s gubernatorial opponent, will no longer be lieutenant governor, many lawmakers who voted on Turner’s bills in 2013 and 2014 are unopposed or currently running for re-election.
“I think there’s going to be more people elected to the Legislature who remain conservative, but I think even those from Republican counties will be more education oriented,” Hood said. “If somebody gets over there and provides some leadership this time, I think the speaker (Philip Gunn, R-Clinton) will work with us.”