State’s College Students Face Financial Aid Crunch | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

State’s College Students Face Financial Aid Crunch

Students used over $8.9 million in state financial aid at the University of Mississippi last year. The Legislature changed financial-aid law this year, however, and now students can no longer receive more than one grant. Photo courtesy Flickr/Ken Lund

Students used over $8.9 million in state financial aid at the University of Mississippi last year. The Legislature changed financial-aid law this year, however, and now students can no longer receive more than one grant. Photo courtesy Flickr/Ken Lund

Allen Coon will lose one of his state scholarships, thanks to the Mississippi Legislature cutting over $1 million from state financial aid during the session that ended last month.

Now a junior public policy leadership and African American studies double-major at the University of Mississippi, Coon grew up in Petal, Miss., and is the oldest of two. He did well enough in high school to qualify for the Mississippi Scholars grant (which requires a 3.5 minimum grade point average), as well as the Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant. Together, they provided up to $3,500 of tuition help in his junior year. Next year, Coon will lose $1,000.

Starting this fall, students will not be able to "stack" state aid grants and will only receive the grant worth the most money. The change affects approximately 3,400 students, Mississippi's financial aid office estimates, and Coon will lose his tuition assistance grant.

Coon says both his state grants have paid for about half of tuition at UM so far, and he has managed to avoid taking out student loans. He is quick to acknowledge how fortunate he is because his father helps cover the rest of his tuition. He is not sure what comes next; he hasn't had that conversation with his dad, yet. Coon recently added a sociology minor and will likely stay an extra semester in order to get the credits he needs for it; next he plans to go to law or graduate school. He says it does not seem like financial aid is going to get better, however.

"It's just disheartening because it's not an issue that looks as though it will be improving any time soon," Coons told the Jackson Free Press.

Fortunately, the "no stack" change will not affect most students who benefit from financial aid, but the Legislature tweaked other parts of financial aid rules, too.

Insult to Injury?

The Legislature altered a critical part of Mississippi's financial aid office procedures that could affect all students who receive grants based on grade point averages. Previously, officials checked students' grades at the end of each school year to confirm eligibility for each grant. Starting this fall, the financial-aid office must confirm at the end of each semester or term that students' grades have not slipped below the 2.5 or 3.5 GPA requirements of state aid grants.

Coon, now only set to receive his Scholars Grant, must maintain a 3.5 GPA each semester—versus having a year to even out a potentially weak point. Coon said he has actually been kicked off his Scholars grant before for his grade average, but for right now, he has above a 3.5.

"My grades are OK right now, but it's just an extra headache that I didn't think I'd have to worry about," he said.

For new college students, particularly freshmen, this rule change means adjusting to the rigor of college courses quickly, Mississippi Director of Student Financial Aid Jennifer Rogers said.

"We have historically given students the benefit of the first semester to get their act together, and we don't check until the end of the year," Rogers said.

"Instead of waiting until the end of the year, we will now be checking at the end of each semester," she added.

A 'Bad Situation'

Taxpayers fund three primary grant programs for students in Mississippi to attend a university or community college in the state. They range from $250 per semester to four-year, full-tuition awards, depending on a student's grades, academic achievements and at times, their household's income level.

The Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant pays college freshmen and sophomores $500 per academic year and juniors and seniors $1,000 per year as long as they maintain a 2.5 grade point average, scored a 15 or higher on the ACT and are not eligible for federal Pell grants.

The State Financial Aid Office issued $14.58 million in MTAG grants last year to 24,321 Mississippi college students. Over $6 million of those grants were used at the state's two largest institutions, Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi, data from IHL show.

The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant is for students who have a 3.5 grade point average in high school and score 29 or higher on the ACT (the highest possible score is a 36). The state funded 2,510 college students with these $2,500-per-year grants.

The state's biggest investment of all its grant programs is the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, known as HELP grants. HELP pays full-tuition costs for more than 2,600 students who have a 2.5 grade point average and score at least a 20 on the ACT test. Additionally, these students must come from a low-income household and complete a specific curriculum in high school to qualify. Over 98 percent of the students who receive HELP grants come from homes with incomes of $48,000 or below.

Students affected by the change to financial aid rules are the ones who "stack" two of these three grants together.

Rogers said most students could lose $500 to $1,000 at most with the new "no-stack" grant rule. She hopes that the change will not affect most students' educational experience because the tuition assistance grants pay so little (compared to HELP or Scholars grants).

Students with HELP grants who had an additional state grant will have to come up with $500 to $1,000 they were previously receiving, likely money that went to pay for housing, books or other costs.

"Especially for the HELP students, who are more economically vulnerable students, every dollar counts, so certainly it is disappointing to not make that full award," Rogers said.

Rogers said that implementing the one-grant-per-student rule, while not ideal, was the way to continue handing out awards to the most students possible.

"This decision, based on the numbers we looked at and all the options we considered, had the least impact on the least vulnerable students," Rogers said of a goal she feels strongly about. "I do believe that the best decision was made in a bad situation."

The Student Financial Aid office has prioritized and grown the full-tuition grant program for low-income students significantly in recent years.

In 2012, only 652 students received HELP grants; now, upwards of 2,600 students received those awards. Rogers said working with high school counselors directly has helped grow the program by reaching out to students who might not have known they were eligible for the award.

The governor exempted the state financial aid office from most of his budget cuts during the current fiscal year, but legislators had to slash the majority of agency budgets for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. Lawmakers voted to approve the Student Financial Aid budget bill, which explains how future cuts will work, if needed.

"In the event that funds are insufficient to fully fund all undergraduate grants according to expressed legislative intent, the undergraduate grants of students attending private universities only shall be prorated," the financial aid budget bill says.

In other words, students attending private universities could potentially have their grants allocated at different time intervals instead of all at once if funding gets scarce. Students can use state aid at private institutions in Mississippi under current law. Gov. Bryant must sign the bill into law April 20.

Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com and follow her on Twitter at @arielle_amara.

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