As lawmakers hear proposal to redesign financial aid, education policy experts say it’s a ‘bad idea’


As lawmakers hear proposal to redesign financial aid, education policy experts say it’s a ‘bad idea’

A proposal that would substantially overhaul how the doles out money to help pay for college was presented to a joint hearing of lawmakers on Tuesday.

Jennifer Rogers, the director of the Office of Student Financial Aid, told lawmakers that she does not believe a “perfect plan” exists, but she can’t think of a proposal that has consensus and “would advance the state more than this one does.”

She credited this support to the closed-door task force that created the proposal. Last year, the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a nonprofit, invited public officials from higher education and workforce development to participate with the goal of redesigning state financial aid. Student recipients of state financial aid were not invited to attend.

If the wide-ranging proposal becomes law, it would be the first time that lawmakers have updated Mississippi’s undergraduate grant aid programs since they were created in the late 1990s. The committees plan to consider two identical bills based on this proposal later this week.

Rep. Donnie Scoggin, R-Ellisville, the vice-chairman of the House Colleges and Universities Committee, said the goal of the bill is “simply to try to get more people into the workforce.”

He speculated Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the House and Senate committees ever held a joint meeting, signaling broad legislative support for this year’s proposal after prior efforts to redesign state financial aid have failed to get off the ground.

The Mississippi Eminent Scholars Grant (MESG), the state’s only merit-based program with the primary purpose of rewarding academic achievement — and the most racially inequitable program — is the only state aid program that would remain untouched. The task force didn’t propose changes to MESG, Rogers told the committee, recognizing it has “broad political support.”

The bill seeks to reduce the amount of money that Mississippi spends on its only grant aimed at helping low-income students afford college — the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP grant — while expanding the Mississippi Resident Assistance Tuition Grant (MTAG).

It proposes kicking an additional $18 million in state funds to MTAG but lowering spending on the HELP grant by $7 million.

As written, the bills would reduce awards made under the HELP grant, which currently pays for all four years of college, no matter the institution a recipient chooses to attend. Officials are continuing to target spending on the HELP grant even though the cost, which had been increasing over the last decade, appears to be reaching a cliff, according to OSFA’s annual report this year.

HELP recipients, by and large, choose to spend the generous grant at four-year universities, not community colleges. The growing cost of tuition at the universities is one reason why the state spends the most money on this grant each year. But the bills’ changes aim to push more recipients toward community college by turning the HELP grant into what’s commonly called a “2+2 program.”

Awards for freshmen and sophomores would be lowered to the average cost of tuition at the community colleges, even if recipients decide to attend a four-year university. Juniors and seniors would receive the average cost of university tuition, an attempt to encourage them to transfer.

This way, the HELP grant would have reduced buying power at the universities, increasing the likelihood that low-income students would initially choose community colleges as the more affordable option.

While this move would save the state of Mississippi money, education policy experts told Mississippi Today that it also likely means the rate at which low-income recipients graduate from public universities would plummet.

Nationally, just 1 in 6 community college students successfully transfer to universities.

“Cutting HELP in a way that directs talented low-income students to community colleges is definitely problematic,” said Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute who has studied Mississippi’s state financial aid policies.

Scoggin acknowledged that with the changes, HELP recipients “may very well just stay at the community college and not transfer” to university but he speculated that would depend on a student’s degree field.

Philip Bonfanti, the executive vice president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and a member of the task force, said that he believes Mississippians transfer out of community college at a higher rate than the national average.

According to federal data, MGCCC’s transfer-out rate is 11% — less than the national average.

Bonfanti emphasized the changes to HELP are fiscally responsible. HELP students who wanted to go directly to university could supplement the new, lowered award amount with the Pell Grant or institutional or private scholarships.

“No student loses access to higher education because of this proposed change,” he said, “but it almost cuts the HELP program in half.”

Rep. Lataisha Jackson, D-Como, asked if the task force considered lowering the ACT requirement to the state average of 17 so more students could qualify. Right now, HELP recipients have to get at least a 20.

“I don’t think there was any objection to it,” Bonfanti replied. “I think it was a monetary decision.”

Lawmakers also discussed the proposed changes to MTAG.

The number of students served by MTAG would increase from 17,000 to 34,000, according to HCM Strategists, a consulting firm hired by Woodward Hines to assist the task force.

Under the bills, eligibility for MTAG would broaden so that Pell Grant recipients would no longer be excluded by statute, part-time students could qualify, and the requirement of a 15 or higher on the ACT would be dropped.

Award amounts would increase to $1,000 for community college students and $2,000 for university students.

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, asked if it was fair to MESG recipients for MTAG awards to increase.

“So if you’re an Eminent Scholar, you only get $500 more than a student that breathes air,” he said, referring to the accessible requirements for MTAG. “We’re trying to keep Eminent Scholars in Mississippi.”

“I think it looks a little awkward,” he added.

MTAG would also be retooled in an effort to incentivize students to pick degrees that serve the state’s workforce needs as identified by Accelerate MS. Students who choose “high value pathways” would receive a $500 bonus.

Toren Ballard, K-12 policy director for Mississippi First, said the bills would result in a “huge shift” in resources away from lower-income students.

Ballard added that MTAG is not an efficient use of state resources, citing one study requested by the Office of Student Financial Aid that showed the grant does not have a statistically significant impact on if students obtain a college degree.

“At the end of the day, HELP is need-based, MESG is merit-based,” he said. “We can argue about which one of those should take precedence. But MTAG is nothing-based. It’s a hand out. That’s all it is.”

An extra $500 is likely not enough money to change students’ behavior, said Baum, the Urban Institute fellow.

“The idea that students will change their degree programs for $500 is questionable to begin with — and probably a bad idea,” she said.

Baum added that the state’s priorities of increasing educational attainment to 55% by 2030 are undercut by the lack of changes to MESG.

“In order to be more effective in increasing educational attainment, the system would have to stop showing so much favor to high-achieving students,” she said. “But I guess that is unlikely to happen any time soon.”

Editor’s note: The Woodward Hines Education Foundation is a Mississippi Today donor.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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It’s Valpo vs. Ole Miss for the first time since ’99. Remember?


It’s Valpo vs. Ole Miss for the first time since ’98. Remember?

Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew (20) follows through with his game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer over Mississippi’s Jason Flanigan (3) in their first round game of the NCAA Midwest Regional in Oklahoma City on March 13, 1998. (AP Photo/J.Pat Carter, File)

Valparaiso will visit for a basketball game Saturday, the first time the two teams have met since Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew hit the shot heard around the basketball world.

You know: The shot. It was March 13, 1998, at Oklahoma City, first round of the NCAA  Tournament. Ole Miss, a 4-seed, was a big favorite to beat 13-seed Valpo of the Mid-Continent Conference.

Even basketball fans who weren’t alive then likely have seen the shot replayed multiple times. TV networks play it several times every year when March Madness comes around. It has become one of the iconic plays in history. The networks still play announcer Ted Johnson’s excited call: 

“The inbound pass will be thrown by Jamie Sykes. Carter is pressuring … It’s to Jenkins, to Drew, for the win! GOOD! HE DID IT! BRYCE DREW DID IT! Valpo has won the game! A miracle … An absolute miracle!”

Rick Cleveland

It surely seemed so: Valparaiso 70, Ole Miss 69. For most, it was the feel-good story March Madness is all about, the Cinderella team from a little bitty conference knocks off the favored giant. In this case, the hero was the coach’s son, providing the high point of Homer Drew’s long coaching career.

For Ole Miss, however, it just sucked. For some, nearly a quarter of a century later, it still does.

Carter, who was pressuring the inbounds pass, is Keith Carter, now the Ole Miss athletic director. He was a junior guard at Ole Miss, a terrific player who led the Rebels with 22 points and 11 in that game. But his numbers are not what Carter remembers most.

“I have probably replayed it in my head a million times over the last 25 years,” Carter said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I always come back to this: Bryce had just missed an open 3-pointer on their previous possession that would have given them the lead. No way he was going to miss two in a row. You just could not let him have that second opportunity. We did.

“In my mind we were the better team, but we let them hang around and hang around and then a great player hit a great shot. That’s what happens in March Madness. But back then, I’m not sure I understood what that one shot meant.”

Rob Evans did. That was the last game he ever coached at Ole Miss after winning 42 games and taking the Rebels to two NCAA Tournaments his last two years in Oxford. Soon afterward, he took the head coaching job at Arizona .

The March 13, 1998 loss to Valparaiso was the last game Rob Evans evert coached at Ole Miss

“I remember going to the locker room and telling my guys, ‘You are going to see that shot for the rest of your lives,’” Evans said by phone Wednesday from Dallas where he is a special assistant to the athletic director at SMU. 

In all, Evans spent 48 years as a college coach after four years as a college player. Says he, “That Valpo game was without a doubt the lowest feeling I ever had in basketball. For us to lose that game in those final seconds, everything had to go right for them and everything had to go wrong for us. And I will forever believe we had a team capable of going deep in that tournament, the Elite Eight or the Final Four.”

That was a fabulous Ole Miss team, one of the best in Rebel basketball history. Led by All American Ansu Sesay, the Rebels were in the nation’s Top 25 the entire season and finished the regular season ranked No. 10. They won at Kentucky. They swept Mississippi State. They thrashed LSU. Twice. They won the SEC West with a 12-4 conference record and finished 22-7 overall. They were a tough, physical team that played especially hard on defense. They were deep in talent. The backcourt was terrific with starting point guard Michael White and wing-man Carter. Sharp-shooting sixth man Joezon Darby provided instant energy and a scoring boost off the bench. Reserve point guards Jason “Buck” Flanagan and Jason Smith would have started for many teams. Center Anthony Boone was an enforcer inside and the team’s spiritual leader, gimpy knees and all. Freshman Rahim Lockhart provided quality depth inside.

They were basketball savvy, too. White is now the head coach at Georgia after successful runs at Louisiana Tech and Florida. Boone is the head coach at Central Arkansas. Lockhart coaches Jones College. Flanigan coaches at Holmes Community College. Sesay, after a long professional career, is an assistant coach at Texas Southern. Darby runs a highly successful basketball training academy Dallas. And Carter, of course, now hires and fires coaches.

Ole Miss was a 10-point favorite over Valpo. Thanks to Carter, who made 4 of 7 3-pointers and tied Drew for game-high scoring with 22 points, the Rebels led most of the way. They were up by four points at halftime and still led by two points going into the final seconds. And then, as Evans put it, everything had to go right for Valpo, wrong for Ole Miss. Sesay rebounded Drew’s miss and was fouled with 4.2 seconds remaining and the Rebels leading 69-67. Sesay could have put the game away, but Sesay, normally a proficient free throw shooter, missed both. Carter battled for the rebound but the ball went out of bounds on the sidelines in front of the Ole Miss bench. Only 2.5 seconds remained. Nearly 25 years later, Carter has vivid memories. 

“The official said it went off of me, but I am almost certain I did not I touch it last,” Carter said. “And then when they let them in-bound the ball from the end of the court instead of in front of our bench, which would have been a more difficult angle to make that pass. Still, you have to give them credit for making the play.”

Said Evans, “If the ball just stays in bounds after the missed free throw, we win.”

Still, Valpo had to go the length of the court. That’s hard to do in 2 and half seconds, less time than it took you to read this sentence.

Carter, a high leaper, fronted the in-bounds pass by Sykes. Carter jumped high, as Sykes faked as if to pass. Then, as Carter came down, Sykes rifled a ball down the floor to teammate Bill Jenkins, just over the finger tips of a leaping Lockhart. Jenkins quickly shoveled the ball to Drew, who swished a running 20-footer at the buzzer

“When he shot it, I knew it was in,” Evans said. “Buck (Flanagan) was covering Bryce and took his eyes off him just a split second when the pass was coming down the court. That’s all it took.”

Said Lockhart, “It felt like a in the family.”

In four months, it will have been 25 years since Drew’s deed was done. In the ensuing years, both Carter and Evans have become friends with Bryce Drew, who now coaches at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix after an NBA career and a stint as the head coach at Vanderbilt.

“Such a good guy, such a good family,” Carter says of Drew, who married a Jackson native, the former Tara Thibodeaux, an accomplished dancer and choreographer.

As it turns out, Evans’ grandson and Bryce and Tara’s son, Homer Drew’s grandson, are teammates on a youth basketball team in Phoenix. What are the odds?

One more note: A man named Bryce Drew (no relation to the more famous Bryce Drew), is now the Manager of Human Relations at Ole Miss. Says Keith Carter, chuckling, “This Bryce Drew is a really good guy, too, but I gotta tell you, it took me a while to get past his name.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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