Raising the cost of college wrong move

In Mississippi, a state with a low percentage of adults with a college degree compared to the nation, it’s good public policy to try to keep college affordable.

There are only two ways to do that: either hold down tuition and other related costs, or increase the amount of financial aid available.

On both fronts, due to years of sluggish tax collections, Mississippi has been going in the wrong direction.

State lawmakers, when faced with having to make choices of where to cut education spending in recent years, have steadily gone with sparing K-12 schools relative to their college counterparts. That, in turn, has forced the institutions of higher learning, especially the universities, to raise tuition much faster than inflation.

In the past, some of that blow has been cushioned by state-funded financial aid programs, which have been especially critical for students coming from families of modest means.

That aid, though, is also now being reduced to adjust to current budget realities. Lawmakers have recently directed the state Office of Student Financial Aid to end the practice of “stacking” — that is, awarding more than one of the state’s five grant programs to a student. Going forward, students will only be eligible for receiving aid from the program that will award them the largest amount. It’s estimated that about 3,400 students will see their total grant award from the state reduced as a result of this change.

Given the financial realities, that’s a sensible course to take. Better to spread the available aid around rather than have it concentrated in the hands of fewer students.

Nevertheless, Mississippi needs to adopt and stick with a long-term strategy to curb the rising cost of college and the amount of debt with which in-state students are stuck. That means reversing some of the budget cuts that the community colleges and universities have had to take, while also holding their feet to the fire to better control their costs. It means putting more money into financial aid, but also telling the schools to stop eating up these increases, as they often have in the past, with tuition and fee hikes. It also may mean rethinking the trend at some of the state’s universities to lower the cost of tuition for out-of-state students.

Certainly it’s a nice theory that state-supported tuition subsidies for out-of-state students could pay off if those students wind up staying here after graduation. Mississippi, however, may not have the resources to see if that theory will actually prove true.


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