State student aid feels pinch

JACKSON – Enrollment and tuition at Mississippi’s eight public universities have been rising steadily, but the amount of financial aid provided by the state has not.
In 2000, the state appropriated $30.1 million for financial aid. For the current year, it allocated $31.9 million, a 6 percent increase.
Yet, during the same time period, enrollment at the eight public universities has increased 15.8 percent from 63,642 to 73,699.
At the 15 community colleges, enrollment increased 8.8 percent from 86,364 to 93,972 from fiscal year 2003 to fiscal year 2008. And for the current year, community college officials expect a 13 percent increase in enrollment.

More students
Tuition at the eight pubic universities has gone up 65.6 percent since 2000, and it has gone up 80.7 percent at the 15 community colleges. Housing and food have experienced similar increases.
State support of financial aid reached a peak in fiscal year 2004 of $36.6 million. Both Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board from Community and Junior Colleges, and Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, have recently voiced concern that the level of funding for the state’s scholarship, grants and loans programs might not keep pace with enrollment.
“I am concerned about having enough money to fund all the scholarships” in future years, Bounds said. The commissioner recently expressed those views to the Legislative Budget Committee members who are working on a budget proposal for the 2010 session.
Mississippi has several scholarship programs. During the current year, more than 27,300 students are receiving state assistance. The average amount is $1,099.52.
The most used aid is the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant program, which provides $500 per year to all freshmen and sophomores who make at least a 15 on the ACT college entrance exam and maintain a 2.5 grade point average on a scale of 4. Juniors and seniors earn $1,000 per year.

Other assistance
The state has other programs that guarantee assistance, including the Eminent Scholars Grant Program.
MESG provides up to $2,500 annually for students with at least a 3.5 grade point average who score 29 or better on the ACT.
Mississippi has several programs that provide scholarships to students who agree to teach in critical needs subject areas or geographic areas. Similar scholarships are available for nursing students. If the students do not honor their commitment, the scholarships are turned into loans.
But money for those programs is predicated on the amount of funds left after all commitments to programs like MTAG and MESG are met.
“MTAG is tremendously important to students in community colleges and the universities,” Clark sad. “We’re dealing with increasing enrollment. It looks like there certainly will be double-digit increases at the community college.
“We want to make sure scholarship money gets to all the students who are eligible.”
Clark said college enrollment, especially at the more accessible and less expensive community colleges, increases during difficult economic times.
That presents legislators and state policymakers with another one of the double-edge swords they are having to deal with during the current economic troubles.
More people are going to school, placing a grater strain on available state dollars for tuition assistance, yet tax revenue is declining, making it difficult to provide more money for higher education students.
“In a poor state like Mississippi we just have a lot of people who can’t afford to go to school full-time,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. “People have to work and it takes longer to graduate….Life happens in that time period. People get married or for whatever reason end up never graduating.”
Brown said he wished more funds could be put into financial aid, “but we just don’t have the money right now.”
In September, Gov. Haley Barbour made budget cuts because of the slowdown in tax collections. He cut $172 million, with $158 million of that coming from education from the kindergarten through university level. But he avoided cutting financial aid.
But after September tax collections came in $45 million or 10 percent below the estimate, Barbour said he likely would make more cuts. In a second round of cuts, it might be harder to avoid cutting financial aid.
If Barbour does make another round of cuts, “it is going to be difficult to exempt anything” like financial aid, said Dan Turner, a spokesman for the governor.
Last year when Barbour made budget cuts because tax collections were below the official revenue estimate, he cut $1.5 million or 5 percent out of financial aid.
Under state law, if there is not enough funds to provide MTAG and MESG scholarships to all eligible students, they would receive a pro rata share of available funds, Clark said.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal