Across the state, many Mississippians recognize the need for a post-secondary credential. They recognize the benefits of having a degree because it brings with it the skills and increase in pay that helps in raising a family. Mississippi benefits from a more educated workforce as well, with higher rates of employment and revenue for the state. The more Mississippians who pursue a college education and finish, the more we benefit as a state.
Financial aid is a pivotal factor as to whether a person decides to pursue a post-secondary credential and a major contributing factor towards whether or not a person is able to finish their college degree. With a high number of college enrollees coming from low-income families, in most cases students are unable to afford the expensive costs and subsequently have to drop out or take out significant amount of loan debt. Many of these students are making the grade, but can’t afford the expense of pursuing higher education. Mississippi simply cannot afford to keep losing these students.
Mississippi’s financial aid system does not do all it can to provide equitable access for both traditional and non-traditional students. Its problems revolve around the availability of need-based financial aid. A very low portion of our state-based financial aid is allocated on the basis of need when compared to other states. Mississippi only allocates 15 cents of every financial aid dollar on the basis of need, while other states designate 71 cents per financial aid dollar.
One in three children in Mississippi grows up in poverty, yet there is only one need-based state grant. The Higher Education Legislative Plan (HELP) supports academically high-performing, low-income students in paying for the cost of higher education. There are several administrative barriers in place that keeps students from applying, chief of which is an earlier deadline in March, while other state-based grants have a deadline in September. Most schools do not know about the HELP Grant and cannot communicate it to their students. By the time students find out about the grant, it is often too late. In addition to an earlier deadline, the HELP grant also only has one year of eligibility after high school, while the Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant has three. HELP recipients are high performing students who have completed a college preparatory curriculum and have higher ACT scores. They also graduate college at a higher rate than the general college population. A later deadline date consistent with the state’s other financial aid programs would help ensure that all eligible students have a chance to apply for the grant.
Mississippi’s financial aid program is also failing to help most non-traditional older adult students. More than 36,000 community college students and 25,000 university students are of working age; yet these students are not eligible for most of Mississippi’s state-based grants. This is because most of Mississippi’s grants are for traditional students only. The only grant non-traditional students are eligible for, MTAG, does not allow for part-time enrollment. Older adults are also not eligible for the HELP grant. With often times a family to raise, these adult students often have more expenses than a traditional student and have to juggle a full-time school schedule with full-time work.
Making these changes, including extending the deadline for the HELP grant and including non-traditional and part-time students in state based financial aid programs will ensure that these programs (and our limited financial aid dollars) are not excluding the students with the most need.
The Mississippi Economic Policy Center (MEPC) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts independent research on public policy issues affecting working Mississippians. Find out more about MEPC’s work on their website.