Mississippi’s state grant system is unnecessarily complicated, with differing application criteria, deadlines, and award calculations for the three major grant programs. But a single grant program, the proposed Mississippi One Grant, which merges the state’s two goals of increasing access, affordability, and attainment among low-income students and rewarding students for academic achievement in high school, is likely to generate new problems, particularly for low-income students, without solving many of the current system’s shortcomings. This report reviews the strengths and weaknesses of Mississippi’s state grant system and discusses constructive avenues for reform.
If policymakers want to meet both broad goals for higher education, changes to the state grant program should include the following elements:
- A program for each goal. Two separate programs to achieve Mississippi’s goals of increasing access and rewarding high school academic success, with the larger program supporting students eligible for college admission but lacking the financial resources to enroll
- Larger awards for need relative to merit. Award levels that recognize the difference between need-based aid that increases educational attainment and merit-based aid that rewards and encourages students with demonstrated academic success
- Broad eligibility. Inclusion of older students and those enrolled at least half time, with higher levels of funding for students taking more credit hours, at least up to 15 credit hours per semester
- Funds that encourage academic progress. Provisions to encourage timely completion, such as funding for summer study, allowances for students forced to temporarily interrupt their studies, and requirements for completing enough credits to progress through the program in a timely manner
- Minimal benefit cliffs. Structures that minimize sharp differences in awards for students in similar circumstances, avoiding steep declines in aid as students move from one test score or expected family contribution category to another
- Simple application. An application process that is simple, transparent, and accessible to students, especially those applying with minimal family or community support
Mississippi would benefit from maintaining two separate programs: one for rewarding high school academic success and one for increasing access and success for low- and moderate-income students. Denying aid to students who are admitted to and enroll in college only because their standardized test scores are below average is counterproductive. College admissions requirements sort students into educational opportunities and rather than imposing additional academic requirements for the students with the most need, the state should support the success of all enrolling students.
The state will always face trade-offs between controlling the budget and providing the support on which so many students depend. But designing programs that allow students who cannot afford college on their own is the most promising strategy for ensuring a high return on the state’s investment.