"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.