By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Mississippi must provide more aid to low-income college students, a new report says.
Doing so would both attract more students to pursue higher education and help them to remain in school, says “Investing in Our Future,” produced by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.
“We’ve been looking at what kind of system do we have in place to make sure our adult workforce can get the skills necessary,” MEPC Director Ed Sivak said during an editorial board meeting at the Daily Journal on Tuesday to discuss the report. “…Can we remove the high cost of attending institutions of higher learning as one of the barriers?”
The report calls for tweaks to Mississippi’s three existing state-funded aid programs, which have been largely unchanged since their creation in the 1990s. It does not call for new programs, nor does it look at privately funded programs.
Although the state leads the nation in childhood poverty – with more than one third of its youth facing that hardship – Mississippi spends much less on need-based college financial aid than other states. Less than 15 percent of the $21.9 million it spent on college grant programs in 2012 was allocated based on financial need. Nationally, the total was 71 percent.
That’s because of the structure of Mississippi’s aid programs, the report said. One of them, the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant program, is not available to those who have received full federal Pell Grants, awarded based on financial need.
The report calls for that restriction to be lifted because the Pell Grant provides $5,500 annually, much less than the cost of university attendance.
“Investing in Our Future” also recommends two changes to the state’s only need-based aid program, the Higher Education Legislative Plan. It is designed to help students with an average adjusted family income of $36,500 or less. However its spring application deadline is much earlier than that for the other two programs, and many eligible students do not apply.
Pushing it back to the fall would align it with the MTAG and the Eminent Scholars Grant Program and allow college counselors to inform newly-enrolled freshmen about it. Doing so also could help to reach five times as many students, the report said. In 2012-13, there were 919 HELP awards, with another 3,828 students eligible.
Meanwhile, increasing the family income eligibility by $10,000 would make an additional 4,891 students eligible.
Making college more affordable for low-income students would remove an important barrier and help the state improve its educational attainment, the report said.
“These recommendations will pay off for Mississippi in the long run, but it is something we’ll have to get ahead of,” said D. Polk, MEPC policy analyst.
Taking all three recommendations could cost the state $46 million for up to 33,425 additional awards.
“At the very least, this needs to be part of a conversation when you talk about how we finance college and make it accessible,” Sivak said.
Since 1995, the cost of tuition, housing and a five-day meal plan at Mississippi’s community colleges has grown by 38 percent. The state’s median household income has only increased by 6 percent during that time.
The report also calls for the state’s three programs to open eligibility to adult and part-time students.