Statewide tuition gap bill advances in House

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – A bill designed to develop a pilot program to cover tuition to a Mississippi community college for high school graduates has begun to move through the state House of Representatives.

The bill, which has passed the House Universities and Colleges Committee and is pending before the Appropriations Committee, 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.

TURNER

TURNER

Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, author of the legislation, said he developed it after seeing the success of the program in Northeast Mississippi.

Sen. Bill Stone, D-Ashland, has offered similar bills in past years in the Senate.

Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president for the Tupelo-based CREATE Foundation, said the program is important because “in this new economy the work force 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.

Enacting the community college tuition guarantee program statewide is one of the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Northeast Mississippi, which was developed to work on a cohesive economic development strategy in the 17 counties served by CREATE.

Turner’s legislation is called the Gap Program, referring to the fact that it fills in the gaps after other possibilities for tuition assistance are utilized.

The program pays tuition for students after all other opportunities for financial aid, such as federal Pell grants, state programs and other scholarships, have been exhausted. For some students that might mean the program pays the portion of the tuition not covered by other financial aid while in other instances the program will cover the entire cost if the student does not qualify for other financial aid.

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

Some state scholarship programs, such as the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant program, and others already exist for most new high school graduates. Turner’s proposal would fill in the gap in funding at Mississippi community colleges.

The program, as it works in Northeast Mississippi, and how the bill is drafted, is eligible to new high school graduates. In the Northeast Mississippi program, the students must maintain a 2.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale while the legislation calls for the student to maintain a 2.5.

Turner acknowledged that there are people who have been out of school for a longer period of time that could benefit from community college tuition assistance, but said a start had to be made at some point.

And it is not certain that the program will be approved or that money will be appropriated for it during the 2014 session. Efforts have been underway to pass the program for several years. At one point in a past session, Turner was successful on the House floor in amending another bill to include the community college tuition assistance program, but it died later in the process.

“This year I think it will get some traction,” Turner said. “It will be a pilot program.”

Under the legislation, the pilot program would be for the 2014 fall semester and 2015 spring semester.

Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community College Board, said, “This bill has the potential to help a lot more people go to college, and that is obviously a good thing. Our concern is that if the Legislature passes the bill, it needs to be funded with new money.

“Community colleges are badly underfunded now. Our worry is that the Legislature might just take money away from providing for the students we already have to give to the new students, and that would put our community colleges into a deeper financial hole than we are in already.”

Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, said, “I am supportive of that. Whether that means more kids coming to us (after completing two years at the community college level) or more kids with better skills for the workforce, it is a positive outcome.”

Bounds did express hope that the program some way focuses on middle-class students. He said students on either end of the financial spectrum – both from impoverished families and from affluent backgrounds – have better access to higher education than do middle-class students. He said poor students often can get substantial help through existing financial aid programs.

Whitfield agreed. But he said that often impoverished students are not made aware of the aid they can receive so they never apply. He said some of the students have seen the tuition guarantee in the Northeast Mississippi program and have applied – only to find out they are eligible for other aid, such as federal Pell grants.

Of the 2,782 who applied last fall for the community college tuition assistance in 16 counties in the CREATE region, 613 received money through the program totaling $452,816, The other students received tuition help through other programs.

Marshall is the only CREATE county that does not currently have the program, but it will start there in the coming year.

The program is paid for in Northeast Mississippi in a variety of ways, such as money appropriated by county and city governments, various nonprofit groups, such as CREATE, the Gilmore Foundation in Monroe County, planning and development districts and businesses and individuals.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com