Universities and Colleges; Appropriations


Donnie Scoggin


2023 Session


Latest Action

The conference committee for HB 771 failed to produce a conference report. The bill is now dead.

Explanation of the Bill

As introduced, House Bill 771 would increase the award amounts for the existing Mississippi Tuition Assistance Grant (MTAG), rebrand the program as “MTAG Works,” and revise eligibility to include part-time students and low-income students. These revisions would turn MTAG into a need-based grant and allow roughly 34,000 additional low-income students to receive financial aid. 

As introduced, HB 771 would have decreased award amounts for freshmen and sophomore college students receiving the need-based Higher Education Legislative Plan (HELP) grant. This reduction in financial aid to low-income HELP recipients would have resulted in these students attending two-year community colleges rather than four-year universities—apparently the intent of community colleges involved in developing this proposal—or accumulating additional student loan debt in the process of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. These developments would have almost certainly made earning a four-year degree less likely for low-income students, as just 1 in 6 community college students ultimately go on to transfer to a four-year university. 

The latest version of this bill no longer includes these changes to MTAG and HELP. Please see the “Latest Action” section for the current status of HB 771.

Changes to HELP (As proposed in HB 771 as filed)

HELP is currently Mississippi’s only need-based grant. The grant covers 100% of tuition and fees for students pursuing a two- or four-year degree who demonstrate financial need and meet certain academic qualifications. HELP recipients are required to have an adjusted gross income (AGI) less than $42,500 a year for a family with one child under 21. For each additional child, the maximum AGI increases by $5,000. Students must also earn a minimum ACT score of 20, have earned a minimum high school GPA of 2.5, and maintain a minimum college GPA of 2.5.

Under HB 771—as introduced, not the current version—eligibility would remain unchanged, but the grant would be reduced substantially for freshmen and sophomore recipients attending four-year universities. Freshmen and sophomores attending a four-year university would receive a grant equal to the “average tuition and required fees charged by the state’s public two-year colleges,” rather than the cost of tuition and fees at the university they attend. To put this reduction in perspective, consider that, in 2020-2021, recipients at four-year public universities received an average grant of $7,551 compared to the average grant of $2,796 at public two-year community colleges—a difference of $4,755. Over two years, a student attending a four-year university would have received almost $10,000 less in financial aid.

The intended effect appears to be encouraging low-income students to attend two-year community colleges, with the option of attending a four-year university after earning their associate’s degree. Low-income students can still theoretically earn a bachelor’s degree through what is known as the “2+2 Pathway,” though there remain serious questions about the opportunities these students forgo—networking, course availability, extracurriculars, etc.—by not attending a four-year university for all four years. There is also a concern about the rate of community college students who ultimately transfer to four-year universities.

The changes to HELP will save the state roughly $7 million a year. These savings will help fund a portion of the expanded “MTAG Works,” which is estimated to cost an additional $28 million under HB 771.

MTAG Currently

MTAG is currently neither a need-based grant nor a merit-based grant. The grant is currently available only to students who are not eligible for Federal Pell Grants, meaning it is geared toward middle- and high-income families (Pell Grant eligibility is not subject to a strict maximum income limit, though virtually all students from families earning $30,000 or less are eligible, as are some students from families earning up to $60,000). Academic requirements are fairly lenient: students must have earned a composite ACT score of at least 15 (below the statewide average) and must have a minimum GPA of 2.5. Eligible freshmen and sophomores can receive up to $500 a year, while juniors and seniors can receive up to $1,000 a year.

Whereas HELP and MESG are specifically intended to promote in-state degree attainment among low-income students and high-achieving students, respectively, MTAG operates essentially as a handout to families who already have the means to afford college (according to the Office of Student Financial Aid, a plurality of recipients in the 2020-2021 school year had family incomes in the $110,001-$250,000 range). Because MTAG is not designed to achieve a particular policy outcome, it is unsurprising that a 2015 study found there to be no statistically significant effect of MTAG on postsecondary graduation rates.

Changes to MTAG: “MTAG Works” (As proposed in HB 771 as filed)

HB 771 would rebrand MTAG as “MTAG Works” to “signify the state’s commitment to strengthening Mississippi’s workforce pipeline…” Under HB 771, changes to MTAG Works would include:

  • Opening the grant to part-time students
  • Increasing the grant for freshmen and sophomores to at least $1,000
  • Increasing the grant for juniors and seniors to at least $2,000
  • Implementing a “bonus” grant for students entering a “high-demand” field (as determined by Accelerate Mississippi)
  • Eliminating the minimum ACT requirement
  • Excluding higher-income students (students from families earning above the family median income)
  • Including lower-income students (students from families earning the median family income or less)

Likely the most consequential aspect of MTAG Works under HB 771 would be the income limitations. HB 771 would scrap the exclusion of Pell-eligible students and instead exclude students from families earning above the median income, effectively turning MTAG Works into a need-based grant for students from families earning the median income or less. Because HB 771 would also eliminate virtually all academic requirements and expand the program to part-time students, thousands of additional low-income students would be able to access state financial aid.

Under HB 771, grants would increase from $500-$1,000 to at least $1,000-$2,000, though the intent is to have the grants equal 20-25% of the average tuition of public four-year universities in Mississippi for junior and seniors, and about half of that for freshmen and sophomores. The intent would also be for the “bonus” grant to equal 25% of the overall award. According to College Scorecard data, the average tuition for public four-year universities was roughly $8,000 in 2020-2021, meaning that the grant for a junior or senior would at least double from $1,000 to about $2,000, plus at least an extra $500 if they are pursuing a degree in a “high-demand” field.

The expansion of need-based financial aid under MTAG Works would certainly improve college affordability for low-income students, though the effect may be too marginal to meaningfully improve college graduation rates at four-year universities. The average cost of attendance (tuition plus room, board, and other expenses) at four-year public universities in Mississippi was about $23,240 in 2020-2021, meaning an MTAG Works recipient would still have to come up with over $20,000 each year between student loans and additional grants or scholarships (HB 771 would disqualify MTAG Works recipients from receiving other state grants). These expenses may keep a bachelor’s degree out of reach for many low-income students, even with the availability of MTAG Works. 

On the other hand, MTAG Works will likely have a substantial impact on the ability of low-income students to earn an associate’s degree at two-year colleges, as the cost of attendance at these community colleges is much closer to the award amounts offered under MTAG Works.

1/16/23On January 16, HB 771 was referred to the House Universities and Colleges Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.
1/25/23On January 25, the House Universities and Colleges Committee unanimously passed HB 771 without amendment.
1/31/23On January 31, the House Appropriations Committee passed a committee substitute for HB 771 which maintained the original bill language but added a reverse repealer. The House Universities and Colleges then passed the committee substitute for HB 771.
2/7/23On February 7, the House passed HB 771 with two critical amendments. The first amendment would change eligibility to MTAG Works so that low-income students (those from families earning the median income and below) would qualify instead of higher-income students (those from families earning above the median income). The second amendment would allow freshman and sophomore HELP recipients to receive an award equal to 100% of tuition and fees if they attend a public college or university with a total student enrollment of 6,906 students or less.
2/23/23On February 23, the Senate Universities and Colleges Committee passed an amended HB 771 that erases any changes to the HELP award structure, meaning that HELP recipients would continue to receive 100% of tuition and fees regardless of whether they attend a four-year or two-year school.

The amendments to HB 771 leaves the proposed changes to “MTAG Works” largely intact. The only change is that the committee substitute specifies that Accelerate Mississippi would be able to designate up to five “high-demand” fields in each geographic region that would be eligible for the “bonus” grant of at least $500 (initially there was no specified number of “high-demand” fields).
2/28/23On February 28, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amended HB 771 that erases any changes to MTAG and makes some slight changes to the HELP grant. Under these amendments, MTAG would remain in its current form (no “MTAG Works”) and the HELP grant would be slightly reduced for most recipients at four-year colleges and universities. The Senate Universities and Colleges Committee also passed HB 771 as amended.
3/7/23On March 7, the Senate passed HB 771 as amended.
3/10/23On March 10, the House invited conference on HB 771. House conferees include Donnie Scoggin, Jerry Darnell, and Karl Oliver. Senate conferees include Rita Potts Parks, Nicole Boyd, and Bart Williams.
3/28/23On March 27, a “dummy” conference report was filed so that the bill would technically meet the conference deadline and remain alive. As expected, on March 28, the Senate and the House rejected the conference report and recommitted the bill for further conference.
3/29/23On March 28, a second conference report was filed for HB 771. The second conference report would have reduced the HELP grant slightly for most recipients at four-year colleges and universities, and would have made some slight adjustments to the proposed “MTAG Works” rewrite, including reducing grant awards and delaying implementation by one fiscal year. On March 29, the House unanimously rejected the second conference report and recommitted the bill for further conference.
4/1/23The conference committee for HB 771 failed to produce a conference report before the April 1 deadline. The bill is now dead.