As lawmakers hear the proposal to reshape the grant, education policy experts say it’s a “bad idea”.

A proposal that would fundamentally overhaul the way the state allocates money to help Mississippi citizens pay for college was put before a joint lawmakers’ hearing on Tuesday.

Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, told lawmakers that she didn’t think there was a “perfect plan,” but she couldn’t think of a proposal that had consensus and “would move the state forward more than this .”

She credited that support to the behind-closed-doors task force that created the proposal. Last year, the nonprofit Woodward Hines Education Foundation invited officials from higher education and human resources development to participate with the goal of transforming government funding. Student scholarship holders were not invited.

If the sweeping proposal becomes law, it would be the first time lawmakers have updated Mississippi’s undergraduate scholarship programs since they were created in the late 1990s. The committees plan to consider two identical bills based on this proposal later this week.

Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the vice chair of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, said the goal of the bill is “just to try to get more people into the job market.”

He speculated that Tuesday’s session marked the first time the House and Senate committees had ever held a joint session, signaling broad legislative support for this year’s proposal after previous efforts to overhaul state financial assistance failed to take off were.

The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG), the state’s only merit-based program with a primary purpose to reward academic achievement — and the most racially unjust program — is the only state assistance program that would remain unaffected. The task force has not proposed any changes to the MESG, Rogers told the committee, acknowledging that it has “broad political support.”

The bill aims to reduce the amount of money Mississippi spends on its only grant aimed at helping low-income students afford college — the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP grant — while expanding the Mississippi Resident Assistance Tuition Grant (MTAG). .

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It proposes to inject an additional $18 million in government funding to MTAG but reduce spending on the HELP grant by $7 million.

As written, the bills would reduce bursaries awarded under the HELP Scholarship, which is currently paid for all four years of college, regardless of which institution a recipient attends. Officials continue to target spending on the HELP grant, though costs, which have been rising over the past decade, appear to be hitting a cliff this year, according to OSFA’s annual report.

HELP recipients, by and large, choose to spend the generous scholarship at four-year universities, not community colleges. The rising tuition fees at universities are one reason why the state spends the most money on this funding every year. But the bills changes aim to push more recipients toward community college by turning the HELP grant into what it calls a “2+2 program.”

The awards for freshmen and sophomores would be reduced to average community college tuition, even if recipients choose to attend a four-year university. Juniors and seniors would receive average tuition in an attempt to encourage them to switch.

In this way, the HELP scholarship would have reduced the purchasing power of universities and increased the likelihood that low-income students would initially choose community colleges as the more affordable option.

While the move would save the state of Mississippi money, education policy experts told Mississippi Today it also likely means the rate at which low-income recipients graduate from public universities would drop.

Nationwide, only 1 in 6 community college students successfully transfer to universities.

“There is definitely a problem with cutting HELP in a way that directs gifted, low-income students to community colleges,” said Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has researched Mississippi’s state financial aid policies.

Scoggin acknowledged that with the changes, HELP recipients could “very well just stay at community college and not go to university,” but speculated that it would depend on a student’s field of study.

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Philip Bonfanti, executive vice president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and a member of the task force, said he believes Mississippi citizens are graduating from community college at a higher rate than the national average.

According to federal data, MGCCC’s attrition rate is 11% — lower than the national average.

Bonfanti emphasized that the changes to HELP are tax-justifiable. HELP students who wished to go directly to university could supplement the new, reduced grant amount with the Pell Scholarship or institutional or private grants.

“No student will lose access to higher education because of this proposed change,” he said, “but the HELP program will be nearly cut in half.”

Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, asked if the task force was considering lowering the ACT requirement to the state average of 17 so more students could qualify. Currently, HELP recipients must achieve at least a 20.

“I don’t think there was any objection to that,” Bonfanti replied. “I think it was a financial decision.”

Lawmakers also discussed proposed changes to the MTAG.

According to HCM Strategists, a consulting firm hired by Woodward Hines to assist the task force, the number of students served by MTAG would increase from 17,000 to 34,000.

Under the bills, eligibility for MTAG would be expanded so that recipients of Pell grants would no longer be legally barred, part-time students could qualify, and the 15 or higher requirement for the ACT would be removed.

Award amounts would increase to $1,000 for community college students and $2,000 for university students.

Senator John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, asked if it was fair to MESG recipients to increase MTAG awards.

“So if you’re an outstanding scholar, you’re only getting $500 more than a student who breathes air,” he said, referring to the accessibility requirements for MTAG. “We try to keep outstanding scholars in Mississippi.”

“I think it looks a little weird,” he added.

MTAG would also be retooled to incentivize students to choose degrees that meet state labor needs, as identified by Accelerate MS. Students who choose “high quality pathways” will receive a $500 bonus.

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Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director for Mississippi First, said the bills would result in a “big shift” in resources away from lower-income students.

Ballard added that MTAG is not an efficient use of government resources, citing a study requested by the Office of Student Financial Aid that showed the grant does not have a statistically significant impact on whether students earn a college degree.

“Ultimately, HELP is needs-based, MESG is performance-based,” he said. “We can argue about which of these should take precedence. But MTAG is nothing-based. It’s a handover. That’s all.”

An extra $500 probably isn’t enough money to change student behavior, said Baum, an Urban Institute grantee.

“The idea of ​​students changing majors for $500 is questionable at first — and probably a bad idea,” she said.

Baum added that the state’s priorities of increasing literacy levels to 55% by 2030 would be undermined by the lack of changes to the MESG.

“To raise education levels more effectively, the system would have to stop doing so many favors to high-performing students,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Editor’s Note: The Woodward Hines Education Foundation is a donor of Mississippi Today.

— Article credit to Molly Minta of Mississippi Today —

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