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Lawmakers punt to next year efforts to expand college aid for low-income Mississippians

A bill to open a college financial aid program for the first time ever to Mississippians who are adult, part-time and very low-income students fell to the wayside in a legislative session dominated by fights over Medicaid and K-12 funding.

The effort to expand the Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant, called MTAG, died in conference after it was removed from House Bill 765, legislation to provide financial assistance to teachers in critical shortage areas. The Senate had attached MTAG’s code sections to that bill in an attempt to keep the expansion alive. 

This takes Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid, back to the drawing board after years of championing legislation to modernize the way the state helps Mississippians pay for college. 

“At the end of the day, there was no appetite to spend any additional money on student financial aid,” Rogers said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed.” 

All told, the original proposal would have resulted in the state spending upwards of $30 million extra each year, almost doubling OSFA’s roughly $50 million budget. 

The increase derived from two aspects of the proposal: An estimated 37,000 Mississippians who have never been eligible for college financial aid would have become eligible to receive it, and the scholarship amounts would have increased. 

While college students from millionaire families can get MTAG, the state’s poorest students are not eligible, Mississippi Today previously reported. 

READ MORE: College financial aid program designed to exclude Mississippi’s poorest students has helped children of millionaires

Rep. Kent McCarty, R-Hattiesburg, said he supports efforts to help low-income Mississippians afford college, but that HB 765 was not an appropriate vehicle to do so because it was not an appropriations bill. Attempting to expand MTAG through that legislation would have put the original subject of HB 765, the Mississippi Critical Teachers Shortage Act, at risk.

“We didn’t feel it was appropriate to include an appropriation in a bill that had not been through the appropriations process,” he said.

McCarty, a member of the House Universities and Colleges Committee, added that he is in favor of changing MTAG and doesn’t understand the logic behind excluding from state financial aid Mississippi college students who receive a full federal Pell Grant, meaning they come from the state’s poorest families.

“What is the purpose of financial aid? To aid those who need financial aid,” he said. “Excluding a group of students because they’re eligible for other financial aid doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Ultimately, the Mississippi House deemed the proposal too expensive. It never passed out of that chamber’s Appropriations Committee. 

READ MORE: ‘A thing called money:’ Bill to expand financial aid stalled after House lawmakers balk at price tag

Rogers said she plans to work with lawmakers to convince them that it is a good use of state dollars to invest in financial aid. She added that the support of the business community helped keep the bill alive as long as it did this session. The Mississippi Economic Council supported the legislation. 

“I don’t understand why there is such a hesitancy to invest more in the future workforce of the state,” she said. “I don’t understand why there isn’t a willingness to invest in student financial aid as a way to help more Mississippians complete meaningful certificates or degrees, valuable certificates or degrees and improve the quality of the workforce.” 

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville, told Mississippi Today that he hopes to take a closer look at MTAG this summer, noting that the Senate’s version of the proposal, which also included a last-dollar tuition scholarship, was a priority of the lieutenant governor on last year’s campaign trail.

“We had so many issues last session,” DeBar said. “Hopefully there won’t be as many next year so we can just focus this year and get it across the finish line.”

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