Bryant proposes free community college for some

Published 10:23 pm Monday, November 20, 2017

Free community college for all Mississippians would be an ambitious and easy-to-explain goal. What Gov. Phil Bryant again proposed last week in his budget recommendation appears more limited, aimed at producing more technical graduates from community colleges.

“The Mississippi Works Scholars Program proposes to incentivize high school seniors and adults already in the workplace by offering free community college degrees, certificates and apprenticeships necessary to gain employment in these opportunity occupations,” the Republican wrote in the budget document.

The details are hazy, and Bryant’s office referred calls to others last week. But lawmakers introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 for pilot scholarship programs aimed at covering tuition for high school students who graduated from career technical programs and wanted to keep studying those subjects in community college. Bryant’s also wants to include some group of adults, but it’s not clear, for example, whether career changers who have already earned a degree could get aid.

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Community College Board Executive Director Andrea Mayfield said that’s among the issues that still need to be worked out. She said that free tuition could ease the “outdated stigma” on technical careers as opposed to those that require four-year degrees.

“We’re all working together to identify what are the job needs and what careers are available in Mississippi — because we want our people to stay — and what careers have high earning potential,” Mayfield said.

Bills introduced previously proposed aid only to recent high school students who had graduated with at least a C average or people leaving the military. The students would have previously had to study in a high school career technical program, and would have had to enroll in a technical two-year degree or certificate program. Subjects included energy, manufacturing, health care, agribusiness, hospitality, information technology, construction, or transportation. Students would have had to maintain a 2.5 grade point average in college, and would have lost aid if they transferred to any other school.

Bryant proposes $7 million to fund his proposal. That may seem surprisingly cheap, but it’s likely in the ballpark. That’s because what Bryant and lawmakers have in mind are called last-dollar scholarships. Students would be required to apply for and accept all other forms of aid before the state would step in and make up the difference. Many community college students are eligible for a federal Pell Grant to cover tuition, books and other costs. Such a grant is worth up to $5,920 for the poorest students this year, compared to average community college tuition of $3,104 at Mississippi’s 15 institutions.

About 30 Mississippi counties already guarantee free community college tuition using last-dollar scholarships to any student who graduates from high school with a C average. Those students must move directly to community college, but can study anything, not just technical subjects. When asked in 2014 to estimate a statewide cost for such a program, the Community College Board said it would cost less than $4.5 million a year.

The statewide plan passed the Mississippi House 115-4 in 2004, but it never went anywhere in the state Senate. That’s in part because some public universities fear competition from community colleges for students. Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University each get unusually small shares of students from transfers, instead trying to recruit students directly as freshmen.

Because Pell Grants pay for the poorest students, any last-dollar program is likely to benefit people who are more affluent. However, those who support the idea believe promising free tuition to all encourages enrollment by less affluent students who are put off by debt and don’t realize they’re already eligible for financial aid.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.