Mississippi News Maple Smith, a non-profit Mississippi News Maple Smith, has lived in Greenville all her adult lives except for four years as an undergrad at Mississippi State University. As a secretary in the city clerk’s office, she searches for ways to “sow seeds” in Greenville in her spare time. She has more now that her children have graduated college. The mayor’s office invited Smith in 2018 to join the Greenville College Access Network, which would assist local students with financial aid. Mayor Errick Simmons explained that the idea was to increase the number of local students who can go to college and attract more businesses to Greenville to create better-paying positions. Smith cannot remember how many hours she spent helping Greenville students apply for financial aid nearly three years ago. Sheila Watson is her co-coordinator and she has created PowerPoints as well as pamphlets to assist students with the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid. These two women have made a significant impact on the number of students who receive college financial aid in their local community. According to Get2College, FAFSA applications for Greenville High School more than doubled this year. Smith stated, “We started it from the ground up.” Mississippi’s biggest barrier to college access is the high cost of tuition. Despite the fact that the Legislature has reduced funding for higher education, tuition at universities throughout the state has increased. For working-class families in Mississippi, college costs about 25% of their annual income. This has an effect on college attendance rates in the state, and Greenville in particular. In 2020, 19% of adult over 25 had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33% nationally. The Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid worked in recent years to increase the number of students from low income families who receive the Higher Education Legislative Plan for needy Students grant, which covers all four years of college. Despite the effectiveness and affordability of the HELP grant the Post-Secondary Board overseeing state financial aid cited its rising cost as a reason for overhauling it. The board last year proposed a new policy which would have seen Black and low-income students receive less financial aid. This policy was developed by a group of financial aid officers from colleges and universities across the state. It was not influenced by parents or students like Watson and Smith, who are firsthand witnesses to the life-changing effects the HELP grant has on students. Watson stated that it was crucial that students use the HELP grant. READ MORE: How to Apply for the FAFSA. Before GCAN officially launched in April 2021 Smith, Watson, and other parents were invited by the mayor’s office to take part in a brainstorming session. The goal was to identify problems that are preventing Greenville students from attending college. Carol Cutler White, a Mississippi State University professor, led the session. She was the first grant recipient from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Parents may find it difficult to get to Greenville by public transport. Some parents may be working. It can be difficult for parents and students to complete the electronic FAFSA form if there is no internet access. Watson stated that the pandemic made it even more difficult, as many parents lost their WiFi access and were laid off. Watson stated that COVID had “really put a damper on our community, and our graduation rate was really low.” Watson felt that students were “giving up” on college. Smith explained that counselors are often overworked and underpaid and don’t have the time to help students get financial aid. Smith hadn’t heard of the HELP grant even though she had three children through college. Smith stated that she knew very little about the HELP grant until she started working for Greenville CAN. Imagine if I knew anything about the HELP Grant. GCAN was founded in April. They waited for hours for people to arrive. Soon word spread quickly and Smith and Watson recruited volunteers from local fraternities, sororities, and churches. Smith and Watson would refer friends to Smith as they saw more students show up. The two women now receive so many requests from students for help with the FAFSA, they are open to receiving them at any hour of the day. Smith had plans to assist a student with the FAFSA via Zoom at 7:30 p.m. Two students are already in college and asked Smith for her assistance talking to the financial aid department. Simmons stated that the mayor’s office will continue to expand the initiative over the next year. Simmons stated that the addition of the word “attainment”, signals the commitment of the mayor’s Office to bring Greenville students back after graduation. To support this goal, White, a professor at MSU, received a grant from AmeriCorp to add 15-20 GCAN members as mentors to students. This formalizes the work Smith and Watson do now. Watson, like Smith, was born in Greenville and went to college at Mississippi Valley State University. She was employed by the Mississippi Department of Labor in adult education. Watson is now an English language arts teacher at Weddington Elementary. She graduated sixth grade. Watson knows firsthand the impact a post-secondary degree can have on a student’s lives. Watson hopes that students will return to Greenville once they have earned a degree. Watson stated, “It’s up the student to give back first to their community before they go elsewhere.” “That’s what’s happening now: Students helping, giving to the family first.” Editor’s note: Get2College, a program of Woodward Hines Education Foundation, is a Mississippi Today donor.