Tuition guarantees boost college access

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Northeast Mississippi continues to see growth in its tuition guarantee programs.
Fifteen of the region’s 16 counties – all except Marshall – offer the program, which covers the cost of four semesters of community college tuition beyond what is paid for by scholarships and grants.
Last fall, 2,500 people applied for the tuition guarantees in Northeast Mississippi, and 549 were supported by the program. The rest ended up having their tuition covered by other means, such as scholarships and financial-aid grants. The program spent $351,507 last fall, or about $640 per student.
Figures for this year are not yet available.
“I think it has been a really good thing,” said CREATE Foundation Senior Vice President Lewis Whitfield. “One advantage we don’t talk about enough is that given the numbers here, a fairly small percentage of people who applied needed money. A lot of kids in high school may not have realized they are entitled to Pell grants and different kinds of aid, and this program makes them apply for those things.
“Another strong benefit from an economic development standpoint, it is a way to show people outside this region that we are dedicated to higher education. We are putting our money where our commitment is because we realize this economy will require people with more than a high school education.”
County programs are funded by local county boards of supervisors, development districts, foundations and private donors.
Monroe County, which was the first to offer the guarantee program in 2008, also funds two semesters of study at any in-state public university for residents who have been enrolled in the program and graduated from Itawamba Community College. That program is funded by the Gilmore Foundation.
The foundation will fund 21 college students this year.
“I’m very humbled by the families we’re able to help,” said Gilmore Foundation Executive Director Danny Spreitler. “The one thing we are seeing that must be addressed in this state is the rising cost of tuition. We are seeing families even with our tuition help having to borrow $10,000 or $15,000 for books and dorms and other things.”
Requirements vary
The exact requirements for the program vary by county. Some counties provide it only to immediate high school graduates, while others allow for GED graduates or even high school graduates from previous years.
Community college officials have seen an impact. Itawamba Community College Vice President of Student Services Buddy Collins said the school currently has 355 students receiving money from the program.
“I think it has been a great thing,” Collins said. “The benefit is the same for the students and the institution. Tuition is no longer a barrier for someone to enter college. That is a good thing for the college and for the students and for the region.”
Northeast Mississippi Community College Associate Dean of Students Lynn Gibson said the number of applications the college receives has jumped by about 2,000 over the past four years. Gibson said Northeast received about 5,000 applications this summer.
“The opportunity of a free education shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Gibson said.
To qualify for the tuition guarantee program, students must graduate from high school (some counties also allow for GED graduates), take the ACT before the end of June, apply for the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant by the end of July, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by the end of July and enroll in the community college as a full-time student.