Senate Approaches removes financial statements from amendments, further revisions awaited

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday scraped a sweeping House College financial aid bill with amendments that would extend eligibility to adults and part-time students.

The committee also voted to reduce grants under Mississippi’s only need-based assistance grant from full tuition for all four years at a state institution to $7,274, the cost of annual tuition at the lowest-cost university, Mississippi Valley State University.

Sen. Briggs Hopson, R-Vicksburg, the chairman, read the amendments to House Bill 771 yesterday. No other lawmakers on the committee said anything about the bill.

“Any questions?” Hopson asked. Hearing nothing, he proceeded to vote.

The move signals that the final version of House Bill 711 will likely be drafted in closed conference. At least three competing versions of the bill were proposed throughout the session.

As originally introduced by Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, House Bill 771 would have expanded the Mississippi tuition grant to include qualifying Pell, adult and part-time students and doubled the award amounts under the program. The ACT requirement of 15 or higher would be eliminated, and students from families that make up more than 200% of the state’s median household income would no longer be eligible.

These changes would result in 17,000 students receiving more federal college grants, a consulting firm estimates.

In a more controversial measure, Scoggin’s version would also have reduced grants under the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students so that full tuition would no longer be paid for all four years of college, regardless of which institution a student attends. Instead, the first two years of the award would correspond to the average tuition at the state’s two-year community colleges.

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Hopson told Mississippi Today that these changes have sparked a “pretty bad disagreement” between officials from four-year universities and community colleges, which compete for HELP recipients and HELP dollars.

Community colleges support this change because it will encourage more HELP recipients to attend two-year institutions, and four-year universities want HELP to remain the way it is. By and large, HELP recipients use the generous award to attend four-year universities.

Hopson said his change was an attempt to keep HB 771 alive so there could be more discussion.

“It’s a small compromise, I think, but there’s still work to be done,” he said.

Hopson added that he hopes to bring together universities and community colleges to discuss the bill before the conference.

“When you’re dealing with these things … you need opportunities to sit down face-to-face and go through options,” he said. “We typically hear from one group as opposed to the other group and never really bring those groups together.”

Last week, the Senate Colleges and Universities Committee voted on another set of amendments to the bill. This version would have removed all changes to the HELP grant and retained the revisions to MTAG. This amendment, referred to as a committee replacement, has not been uploaded to the Legislature’s website.

But last week’s version of the bill would entail higher spending on government grants. So is Scoggin’s proposal, which would increase the budget for the Office of Student Financial Aid by an estimated $21 million.

Jennifer Rogers, the director of OSFA, said her office supported Scoggin’s original proposal and agreed not to make any changes to the HELP grant.

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“I really hope that meaningful changes can be made to the programs to promote effectiveness and efficiency,” she said, “and I remain confident that this can be done.”

Education policy experts like Toren Ballard, political director of Mississippi First’s K-12, have been chastised by the changes made by Senate universities and colleges.

Ballard said Hopson’s proposed reduction in the HELP grant is better than Scoggin’s original proposal simply because it isn’t that big of a grant reduction. Under Scoggin’s bill, university HELP recipients would lose an average of $11,200 in financial aid over the course of four years. Hopson’s proposal means these HELP recipients would lose an average of $6,504 over a four-year period.

All in all, this would save the state about $1.4 million per year in HELP spending, according to a Mississippi Today analysis.

“I don’t understand what they’re trying to achieve,” Ballard said, “because the savings are very small.”

Ballard’s other problem with Hopson’s proposal is that he’s not making any changes to MTAG, a program he wants to see updated. MTAG has not changed significantly since its inception in the late 1990s.

“We have a great opportunity to overhaul a subsidy program that has no added value for the state,” he said. “It’s a $500 to $1,000 distribution to middle- to high-income families that doesn’t bring us any returns. By scrapping all of these changes to MTAG… we’re only shooting ourselves in the foot.”

— Article credit to Molly Minta of Mississippi Today —