House approves statewide tuition aid

TURNER

TURNER

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Students graduating from high school this year would get free tuition at any of the state’s 15 community colleges under legislation that passed the House 115-4 Tuesday.

The bill is modeled after programs established in Northeast Mississippi for Itawamba Community College and Northeast Mississippi Community College. Those programs fill in remaining tuition costs after a student’s other sources of financial assistance are exhausted, including state, federal and private aid.

Rep. Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, successfully added an amendment to name the legislation after Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, who is the primary author of the bill and a consistent advocate for the program.

“He has been kind of a bird dog. He has been on this for the past eight years,” Stringer said.

Turner said, referring to Stringer’s amendment, “I don’t feel good about that. I am flattered, but I don’t deserve my name on that. It belongs to the House.”

Because of the other scholarships and grants available to students, it is estimated that the program’s costs would be relatively modest – $3 million the first year and $4.5 million the following year.

The program has been endorsed by the Tupelo-based CREATE Foundation.

The bill, which is a pilot program for two years, now goes to the Senate.

Last year Turner was successful in amending another bill on the House floor to include the community college tuition program, but it died in the Senate. He said he is optimistic it will pass this session.

In an earlier interview, Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president at CREATE, said the program is important because “in this new economy the workforce demands we increase the number of people who can fill these skilled positions.” Whitfield said it is becoming critical that workers have more than a high school diploma to obtain a well-paying job.

The bill would be enacted for the 2014-15 and 2015-2016 fall and spring semesters. To be eligible for the program, a student must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average while taking at least 15 semester hours of classes.

Under the bill, if the costs exceed the appropriated amount, each school would receive a pro rata share to pay a portion of the tuition costs for the students who qualify.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate defeated legislation that would require students who do not score at least a 20 on the ACT to attend a community college to receive the $500 Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant. Currently, students who graduate high school with a 15 ACT and a 2.5 grade-point average can attend a community college or senior college and receive the grant.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com