How should a state dole out its limited money for college financial aid? That’s the basic question at the center of a new legislative proposal in Mississippi. And despite national currents that focus attention on increasing access for poor students, (calls to double the Pell Grant, for instance) the state is swimming in the other direction.
First, a quick rundown on how Mississippi currently spends its $45 million in state aid:
- One grant, known as HELP, goes to the poorest students, with ACT scores of at least 20 and high-school GPAs of at least 2.5. It’s quite generous, covering full tuition at public colleges and universities for families who make less than $39,500.
- A second grant doesn’t consider financial need and gives up to $2,500 to students who score a 29 or higher on the ACT and have a 3.5 high-school GPA.
- A third, smaller one goes to about 20,000 students in the state who don’t qualify for a full Pell Grant. (That one amounts to $500 or $1,000 a year).
It’s a complicated set of programs, all with slightly different rules. That’s just one problem. The bigger challenge is the skyrocketing cost. As more students learned about HELP in recent years, spending for the grant has ballooned — up nearly 80 percent since 2016. This unsustainable growth, officials say, has to be curtailed.
The state’s Post-Secondary Board approved the plan last week and will now recommend the legislature adopt it in the next session. The new one — dubbed the Mississippi One Grant
— would be much simpler, cover more students, and be much less generous to poor students.
And as Molly Minta, our reporter with Mississippi Today, heard from a key leader there,
dividing up the same pie in a new way will mean “there are winners and losers.”
The losers? Mostly poor students.
An example: Right now, a student qualifying for HELP with an ACT score of 20 gets an average of $7,800 to attend the University of Mississippi, but would get just $2,500 under the new program.