SID SALTER: Mississippi exploring ‘free’ tuition

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

House Bill 424, known as the Mississippi Promise Community College Tuition Gap Pilot Program, died in committee on March 4 after being referred to the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

HB 424 would have made tuition free at all 15 Mississippi community colleges for students who graduated from high school within 12 months of enrolling in college. To qualify for free tuition under the language in the proposed bill, students also would have had to be first-time, full-time students. Once admitted students needed to maintain a 2.5 GPA while taking a minimum of 15 credit hours each semester to continue to have their tuition covered by the state.

The proposed law would have meant Mississippi would only pick up the tuition costs after all other federal, state and institutional aid sources have been tapped. As a result, lawmakers estimated the annual cost to be less than $4.5 million per year for the 75,000-student state community college system.

Authored by State Rep. Jerry R. Turner, R-Baldwyn, the bill cited the “cost of higher education” and the “growing financial burden of both out-of-pocket expenses and loans to be repaid …”

The Pew Center reported that California did away with tuition at its public colleges in 1960, but fiscal pressures forced the community colleges to charge “enrollment fees” since 1984-85. Tuition and fees at California’s public colleges still remain the lowest in the country.

Why are these programs gaining national traction? Again, the Pew Center reports that the common denominator is money: “A study last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that states spent 28 percent less per student on higher education in fiscal year 2013 than they did in 2008, and that every state but North Dakota and Wyoming is investing less money in higher education now than before the recession.”

Budget cuts afflicted Mississippi higher education during the recession as well. But as the economy recovered, Mississippi lawmakers did take steps to beef up education funding across the board.

For the state’s community colleges, the push for the program outlined in HB 424 isn’t over. There is an expectation that the bill will see another push next year.

Six of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges already offer some form of tuition assistance.

Across the country, fears of unintended consequences both in the community college systems and the four-year institutions are a driving force behind the reluctance of many state legislators to implement programs of this nature that have already flamed out in earlier iterations in California and New York.

But in Mississippi, access to higher education has been an overarching concern for decades and that will continue.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com. He is the chief spokesman for Mississippi State University.