/This is why people are leaving the state’ How state aid rules hinder college access for working-class families

This is why people are leaving the state’ How state aid rules hinder college access for working-class families

Mississippi News Nonprofit It all started with her husband’s work-related injury. He was prescribed opioids by his doctor. However, the addiction grew into a complete dependence and then a controlled substance arrest. Joyce Blankenship, after 18 years of marriage and living in middle-class homes, found herself kicked out by her husband and losing her only source of income. Her twin daughters, who were then seniors in high school, were also preparing for college. He lost his business, our home, and everything. That’s why we now need financial aid to help my children finish college. We don’t get any assistance from him.” Due to the laws that govern how state-funded student aid is distributed money, adults learners, low-income families and African-Americans are prohibited from receiving financial assistance. According to a Mississippi Today analysis, more than half of the state aid was given to students who came from financially stable families and were likely to go to college, regardless of their eligibility for financial aid. Many outdated regulations in state aid laws have created barriers for low- and middle-class Mississippians who want to pursue higher education. The problem is also due to a lack of strategy in creating state student financial assistance programs and chronic underfunding. The State Aid Redesign Study Committee is composed of legislators, college and university presidents and other stakeholders in the higher education landscape. They have spent the last year reviewing these issues and considering possible solutions, including a complete overhaul, as recommended by Jennifer Rogers, State Financial Aid director. People like Blankenship have to choose between saving money for college and working because college is too expensive. According to the 2018 State of Mississippi Workforce and Innovation Act, only 13 percent of Mississippi’s population has a bachelor’s. The national average is 34 per cent. Two main stipulations prevent adult learners from receiving any type of aid. The state’s highest-awarded undergrad grants must be applied within two years of graduating high school. Students must also complete 15 hours per semester in order to continue receiving aid. Blankenship is currently pursuing her associate’s degree in nursing. However, she cannot qualify for the state’s only need-based grant which would pay the tuition. Seniors and juniors cannot receive meaningful assistance after a life-altering event, such as the death of a parent or other significant life-changing experience. Students who wish to transfer to Mississippi universities after their sophomore year cannot receive the most generous grants. This makes it difficult for some students to make that move. Blankenship’s daughter, an honors student at a Mississippi business college, is trying to transfer to Mississippi, but she can’t do so because it is too costly without the state’s need based grant. She has now reached the time limit that would allow her to be eligible. Blankenship’s second daughter, who is enrolled at Mississippi universities, was able receive state aid for her sophomore years, but she could not receive the full amount due to a 2017 legislative decision that only affected around 3,830 students. According to law, neither Blankenship’s daughters could have received the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant. This is because Mississippi law says that only full Pell-eligible students may not be eligible for it. Therefore, some of the state’s most needy students cannot receive the primary grant. Some claim that this grant is ineffective as the amount it can afford to award recipients is almost negligible when compared with college costs.

Freshmen and sophomores can receive up to $500 each academic year through MTAG. Juniors and seniors can receive up to $1,000. The University of Mississippi tuition costs $8,550.00. Total estimated costs for residents of the state are $19,286.00. Blankenship is still able to attend college despite the financial obstacles. She can also keep her job, take classes and care for her son. People like Eliot Sanford are prevented from returning to school to earn a degree that would significantly increase his income. Sanford is a Jackson lawyer and he long wanted to return to college to earn his associate degree in computer programming technology at Hinds County Community College. Sanford was led to believe that his family of four and his current salary would allow him to pay for his education through state aid. Sanford applied to two community colleges after spending hundreds of dollars and hours on applications. He was denied state aid when he discovered that he would not be receiving it. He was disqualified from receiving state aid because of a retirement fund that he inherited. Because he has a bachelor’s, he would not be eligible for state aid to attend community college. You must be a first-time student to qualify for the state’s undergraduate grants. The only state aid that is available to bachelor degree holders at the moment is for Master’s and not associate degrees. “I was open to the idea of going to community college, but after I made contact with financial aid officers at these schools, I was informed that my status as bachelor holder and the investment portfolio I inherited are disqualifying me as it is money that I technically own. The penalty for taking out the investment portfolio and using it is that it’s money I don’t have. I’m living paycheck-to-paycheck. Sanford stated that I am struggling. Sanford also said that it would be difficult to work 15 hours per semester while maintaining a full-time job and raising children. He said, “You would be cheating on family or your job or both.” State aid is not available for the Summer semesters. This means that students such as Sanford, who need to attend classes all year, or are enrolled in programs that require them, can’t receive any assistance. Sanford decided that the situation was a lost cause, and decided to learn coding online. This is a huge problem. This is why so many people are leaving the state. Because they are unable to get into the doors for such jobs, they feel that there are no job opportunities. They feel they must go to Atlanta, Texas, Florida, New York or Silicon Valley. He said that people leave when they see the door shut. Rogers said that the state aid system has reached a “tipping point” due to efforts to reform it. Rogers requested nSparc (a Mississippi State University data research center), to prepare a comprehensive report on the effectiveness of state financial assistance. The State Aid Redesign Study Committee reviewed its findings throughout the year. Rogers presented a list with formal recommendations to overhaul the state aid system at the State Aid Redesign Study Committee’s most recent meeting. The first two phases of Rogers’ recommendations can be implemented immediately, while the second phase will take time to implement and not impact students currently receiving aid. One quick change will be to extend the deadline for students to apply for the state’s sole need-based aid (Higher Education Legislative Plan For Needy Students, also known as HELP). Applications were due March 31, and awards were given in June. Rogers stated to the committee that students are being offered state aid grants only two months before they begin college. This is too late to have an impact on college-going decisions. The September 15th deadline to apply for MTAG is the opposite. Rogers’ most transformative recommendation was to combine three state grants into one major grant, which awards students on a sliding income level instead of a strict schedule. The HELP grant currently has a strict income cutoff (or cliff) to determine eligibility. A household must have a minimum of $39,500 in income to be eligible for HELP. A student who is a member of a household earning $40,000 is automatically disqualified from the HELP grant. I fully comprehend that this recommendation can be controversial and contentious. MTAG [the state’s merit based grant] and MESG [the state’s MTAG] are now treated as entitlements in our state. Rogers stated that this recommendation might not be supported by all institutions, especially those who are most affected by these programs. She continued, “Nevertheless,… As a steward and representative of all students from all institutions, this is the most fiscally responsible and equitable path forward to ensure affordable college accessibility for all Mississippi students.” One grant would be awarded on a sliding-scale income basis instead of the cliff approach. This could mean that students who currently receive MTAG and $500 would now be eligible for more aid under the proposed model. 18,097 students received MTAG in the 2018 fiscal year. “I believe that all of us are concerned about low-income families who earn too much to be eligible for HELP. Senator David Blount (D-Jackson) said, “I bet you if MTAG or MESG were eliminated…you can provide significantly more support to Mississippi students.” While some were optimistic about the idea of one grant system, others warned that it could have financial implications for state colleges and universities. “I appreciate the smoothing of the funding cliff for the HELP grant. I’m curious to know how many current MTAG recipients will be picked up and saved by this, since we’re talking approximately 20,000 students currently receiving MTAG. Nora Miller, president at the Mississippi University for Women, said that this is a large number of people. “I’m afraid that the burden will be shifted onto the institutions.” Senator Briggs Hopson (R-Vicksburg), was also hesitant to eliminate MTAG or MESG from the study committee. “The elimination of MTAG/MESG – I would not support it and two, I don’t think that the Legislature will support it… But I do believe the issues of smoothing the HELP cutoff cliff are important. I don’t know if that is going to happen. Hopson stated that he thought the bill may be well received. Sen. Josh Harkins (R-Flowood) presented Monday’s bill to the senate colleges and universities committee. It would allow for the expansion of the HELP grant as well as a sliding award system instead of the current cliff. The proposed model would allow students from families earning between $39,500 and $47,000 to receive 66 percent tuition coverage. Students from families making between $47,001 and $55,000 would be eligible for 33 percent college coverage. Although the bill passed the universities and colleges committee it was double-referred. This means it had to pass the Senate appropriations before it could be voted on by the entire body. Although the legislation could have opened up new avenues for families with low or middle incomes, it was voted down by the appropriations committee. This is precisely what Sanford believes made him give up on the idea of returning to school. He said, “That’s why I just gave up on it because they’re never going to get it.” “By the time that they fix it, we’ll already have a programmer who has been self-taught in an online community that is free.” Kayleigh Skinner contributed this report.