Bill to revamp financial aid dies in 2023 session

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, April 4, 2023

A bill to substantially overhaul Mississippi’s college financial aid programs died in conference on the final day of the legislative session, joining a long list of failed efforts to update the decades-old grants.

Instead, lawmakers funded Mississippi’s state financial aid programs as-is, with a roughly $50 million appropriation.

Had it passed, House Bill 771 would have ushered in wide-ranging changes to two key state programs that help Mississippians pay for college: The Mississippi Resident Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG) and the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students grant (HELP). MTAG is the state’s most accessible, and least generous, financial aid award, and HELP is the only college aid program for low-income students.

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The bill, proposed by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, was introduced following a closed-door process, led by a Mississippi-based nonprofit called the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, that was meant to create consensus.

But the final version of the bill proved too unpopular for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. It would have reduced awards for low-income students under the HELP grant – which currently pays for all four years of college, regardless of what institution a student attends – to the cost of tuition at the least expensive in-state university or community college.

The changes to MTAG would have expanded eligibility to part-time and adult students, but at the cost of excluding students from families that make more than the state median family income ($74,888 in 2022 for a four-person family).

Though studies have shown that MTAG is not currently an effective program, any changes are contentious because tens of thousands of Mississippians receive it, said Toren Ballard, a K-12 policy analyst at Mississippi First who had been tracking HB 771. He supported the changes to MTAG.

“By changing a program like MTAG, you have this built-in constituency of people who get a little bit of money from it,” he said. “That is a tricky political tight-rope to walk.”

To fully fund the programs, lawmakers would have had to increase the budget for the Office of Student Financial Aid (OSFA) by an estimated $21 million. But the Senate Appropriations Committee was averse to increasing the office’s budget without more consensus, raising the possibility that awards under the new programs would be prorated.

“The overall cost did impact the proposal ultimately,” said Jennifer Rogers, the director of OSFA. “I personally believe that the state needs to be investing more in state financial aid but I also understand our legislators and policymakers have to juggle a lot of competing priorities for funds.”

Ballard said the proposal was also impacted by the lawmakers who had championed the proposal being seemingly unprepared to defend it at key moments. He cited a line of questioning that Scoggin faced on the House floor in the final week of the session.

After Scoggin presented the conference report, Rep. Missy McGee, R-Hattiesburg, said HB 771’s changes to MTAG would mean she’d have to tell her constituents that lawmakers voted to take away money for college they might currently receive. Then she questioned Scoggin about the bill’s policy goal.

“The objective is to reach more students,” Scoggin answered.

“But is it at the expense of our full time or lower income students?” McGee asked.

Scoggin shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Another line of questioning from Rep. Jansen Owen, R-Poplarville, followed. He said HB 711 would mean HELP recipients would no longer be able to afford the state’s more expensive in-state universities.

Scoggin replied that would happen because of a lack of appropriations.

“Have you spoken to our universities in the state?” Owen asked. “Would you be surprised to know there are actually universities in the state that are opposed to the legislation?”

“I would be very surprised,” said Scoggin. “I’ve spoken to all of them that come to the Capitol, and everyone from the IHL and the community college board is in favor of this legislation.”

Owen then made a motion to recommit the bill to conference, effectively killing the bill since the House did not opt to take up the legislation again before the session adjourned.

Rogers said she is disappointed lawmakers did not pass HB 771 but that she is trying to look at the bill’s death as an opportunity to create a more tenable proposal next year. Her office has been involved with efforts to update Mississippi’s financial aid programs for years. HB 771 made it closer to becoming law than any other proposal since 2018.

“I do not know what will happen in the future,” she said. “But I know I am not ready to give up.”