Meridian Star

January 25, 2014

Community colleges seek to pay tuition for all


Associated Press

JACKSON — JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — House members are considering a plan to pay community college tuition for high school graduates who are not covered by other financial aid for recent high school graduates.

For a 75,000-student system, paying everyone's tuition might sound like a budget buster, but officials say it will cost less than $4.5 million a year. That's because the money would only be offered after a student sought all other aid they're eligible for from the federal and state governments and their community college.

The House Universities and Colleges Committee passed House Bill 424 Wednesday, sending it to the Appropriations Committee. That committee must also act before the full House would take it up.

"It has the potential to be a great program," said Kell Smith, a spokesman for Mississippi's Community College Board.

Local governments and private donors are already running such plans for residents of 20 of Mississippi's 82 counties. Residents of six more counties will get the same offer next fall.

The proposed law would offer the money to any Mississippi resident who graduated from high school, whether public, private or home school. The student must be younger than 21 and must enroll within 12 months of graduation. The student would have to take a full-time slate of 15 credit hours and maintain a 2.5 GPA, or lose the scholarship. If they met those standards, students would be eligible for four semesters of free tuition.

The idea started at Meridian Community College, which began offering what it calls a tuition guarantee in fall 1996, using privately donated money. Haley Parker, who graduated from West Lauderdale High School, is one beneficiary. A sophomore, she plans to transfer to Mississippi State University in Starkville to major in microbiology.

Parker said her family had hoped to send her away to college for four years, but couldn't afford it.

"It helps everyone, but it really helped me because my dad had been laid off for two years," said Parker.

Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of Tupelo's Create Foundation, said the organization initially believed that it would cost $1.25 million a year to operate the plan, which is paid for by differing combinations of government and private funds in each county. But in four years from 2010-2013, the program has never cost more than $900,000. Of 2,782 eligible students in fall 2013, only 613 received aid. The average beneficiary received $740 for the semester, compared to the roughly $1,200 for a semester's community college tuition.

That's because of other aid. Federal Pell Grants typically cover tuition and books, at the state's 15 community colleges for the poorest students. The maximum Federal Pell Grant award this year is $5,645. Any student whose family has an income of $24,000 or less qualifies for that full amount.

Any student who doesn't receive a Pell Grant is eligible for the state's Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant, which contributes $500 a year. Plus, most institutions offer other scholarships. Parker receives one of those in Meridian.

The Community College Board said 6,852 students would have been eligible for assistance in fall 2012. The cost estimate of $4.5 million was built on maintaining a 2.0 GPA, so a requirement of 2.5 is likely to cut the price.

Because Pell Grants pay for the poorest students, the program is likely to benefit the more affluent. Whitfield said organizers believe telling all students they will get free tuition encourages enrollment by less affluent students who are put off by the prospect of debt and don't realize they're already eligible for financial aid.

"I think it helps them get their foot in the door and see what college is like without having to go into debt over it," Parker said of fellow students.