Meridian Star

Columns

August 25, 2013

Obama’s higher ed proposals could significantly impact Mississippi

MERIDIAN — During a speech at New York’s University of Buffalo, President Obama called for a federal ratings system as a guideline for broader reforms of federal student financial aid.

    The proposal sounds good, but the devil as always is in the details. But it’s crystal clear that any federal rating system that is tied to the availability of federal student financial aid will be suspect for Mississippi universities and community colleges.

    Obama has talked about making colleges more affordable, talked about innovations likes three-year degree programs, and talked about a greater proliferation of online or distance courses being available to improve access to higher education. All those things are already available in Mississippi higher education institutions.

    During the 2012 election cycle, Obama bragged that doubled the total amount of funding available for Pell grants. But critics argued that those grants were funded in part by the elimination of other student-friendly benefits like the in-school interest benefit on Stafford loans for graduate students and summer enrollment Pell benefits.

    Mississippi’s dependence on Pell Grants for a significant portion of higher education finance is longstanding. For FY 2009-2010, 96,179 Mississippi students received $415 million dollars in Pell Grants. $236.8 million of those grants went to state-supported institutions. In 2009, 42 percent of Mississippi university students received Pell grants.

    While the national average of college students receiving Pell Grants is 27 percent, the average in Mississippi is much higher — ranging in the 2008-2009 school year from 28 percent at Mississippi State University to 37 percent at Delta State University to 38 percent at the University of Southern Mississippi to 44 percent at Mississippi University for Woman to 68 percent at Jackson State University, 71 percent at Alcorn State University and 76 percent at Mississippi Valley State University. Data was unavailable for the University of Mississippi.

    At state private colleges, Pell Grants are part of the education finance landscape as well. In 2008-2009, 36 percent of Belhaven College students were Pell Grant recipients as were 34 percent at Mississippi College, 19 percent at Millsaps College and 76 percent at Tougaloo College. The average Mississippi college student, even with those federal grants, leaves college with $22,566 in debt.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Mississippi has a total undergraduate enrollment of 160,227 with another 20,911 in graduate school. Some 79,926 are in four-year universities and colleges while another 80,635 are enrolled in community colleges. About 89 percent are enrolled in public institutions.

    Mississippi universities produce $470 million research and economic development with just over 78 percent of that funded by the federal government or by the institutions. Currently, only 15.6 percent of university research is funded by state or local governments.

    Federal student financial aid is a huge issue in Mississippi – the poorest state in the union. For all the public rhetoric of who will control the future of public health care, it’s inconceivable that some of those same voices won’t realize the folly of giving too much control of student financial aid to one part or one president.

    While the Pell Grant program is ripe for reform, turning the future of it over to an arbitrary, highly-politicized process is not the answer.

    

    CORRECTION – In my Aug. 21 column on the issue of Mississippi being one of the states that doesn’t provide air conditioning to Death Row inmates, I made an error when I wrote that the notorious “Little Alcatraz” Unit 17 has been closed in favor of a Unit 32. That’s true, but Unit 32 was later closed in 2010 following a prior ACLU litigation over prison conditions. The prison now houses Death Row inmates in Unit 29, according to state Department of Corrections spokesperson Tara Booth.

    My point remains valid – there’s a vast difference in maintaining a humane prison system and maintaining prisons that are comfortable. The victims of Death Row inmates are not comfortable and neither are their survivors.  

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.

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