By Mark E. Keenum
President, Mississippi State University
As a longtime advocate of increasing access to higher education for all Mississippians, I am glad to see Mississippi Today’s editorial staff turn its attention to our state’s current financial aid programs. However, it was disappointing that their main focus of a recent article was on comments that I made during a Dec. 2020 meeting of the Postsecondary Education Board that were taken out of context.
With quite an attention-grabbing headline – “Got a 17 on your ACT? Mark Keenum doesn’t want you at Mississippi State” – the article significantly mischaracterized Mississippi State University’s long record as an open-enrollment public research university and our documented efforts to advance access for needy and disadvantaged students at MSU, as well as my own personal commitment to these students.
I certainly want every qualified, motivated student who wants to attend MSU to have that opportunity – and once admitted, our university is committed to providing the best student success assistance that we can provide. That’s also the commitment of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni – and has been for decades.
As president of MSU, I have worked tirelessly to provide opportunities, scholarships, counseling and educational support, student success intervention, and inspiration to students facing obstacles in their academic path. Seven consecutive years of enrollment growth – bucking national trends – suggests that commitment resonates with our students and their families.
Many of our peer comprehensive research universities are selective-enrollment universities where many potential students are never considered for enrollment. MSU has a long and laudable record of providing educational opportunities to first-generation college students and those with financial obstacles to attendance.
I am particularly proud of MSU’s Promise Program. Promise Program funding supports students from homes of limited resources by helping them meet the cost of tuition and fees after financial aid is applied. Supported by annual gifts and established endowments to fund awards in perpetuity, the Promise initiative accepts donations of any amount that can help make an education possible for many more students.
Similarly, MSU’s Thrive Program was created to assist students who were previously or are currently a part of the foster care system, an emancipated minor, homeless, had both parents pass away, or any combination of these issues. The program provides comprehensive support and resources that promote academic success, in addition to professional and life skills.
I was present at the Dec. 2020 Mississippi Postsecondary Board meeting as a board member and took part in a serious discussion of the future of these vital programs. The Postsecondary Board is a nine-member board with authority over all of the state’s student financial aid programs, including undergraduate and graduate grants and forgivable loan programs. Public, private, community college, and four-year college students may receive funds through these programs.
The board has representatives from the state’s public universities, the state’s community colleges, the state’s private colleges, appointees of the Governor and Lt. Governor, and two advisory members from both houses of the Mississippi Legislature. We are charged with managing vital taxpayer resources that support Mississippi students in achieving their educational goals.
The issues we reviewed were daunting and important. For decades, Mississippi student financial aid has been structured through three programs. While these programs have provided vital support to students, the funding demand from students qualifying for them has grown significantly – outpacing the allocated funding. In fact, the Legislature is often required to provide an annual supplemental deficit appropriation in support of these aid programs. In short, the status quo is fiscally unsustainable.
In reaction to these fiscal realities, the Postsecondary Board was charged by legislative leadership with streamlining a simplified state financial aid program that recognizes budget constraints and controls program growth while utilizing our limited resources to reward both need and academic achievement.
The Mississippi One Grant recommendation to the Legislature, the product of the Postsecondary Board’s Financial Aid Advisory Committee’s dedicated work, strikes a balance between need and merit when considering how we assist our state’s youth. The Postsecondary Board vote to adopt the recommendation was unanimous. I supported the Mississippi One Grant recommendation to the Legislature with my fellow board members as a first step in beginning the dialog for meaningful reform of our state’s financial aid system.
Under the Mississippi One Grant concept, the financial projections show that:
- 1,767 more Mississippians would have qualified for scholarships.
- 1,369 more African American students would have qualified for scholarships.
- More middle-income Mississippians of all races would receive assistance.
In the poorest state in the union, addressing need as an impediment to college access is essential. But at least equally important is the wisdom of applying both merit and need as criteria in weighing student financial aid decisions when resources are limited. To do otherwise sends our best and brightest minds across state lines from which their return is uncertain.
Student financial aid must also be considered in the context of available federally funded programs and privately funded resources. Our challenge in Mississippi is to help students who want higher education to find their best path to that goal, but consideration of obstacles to student success is something that is most effective on the front end of the process.
While I support the Mississippi One Grant recommendation for student financial aid, along with all of my fellow members of the Postsecondary Board, I am hopeful that in making their decisions, legislators will consider both need and merit assistance as the reform process moves forward. I also believe all students deserve to be guided to the best path that leads them to student success and a positive outcome in their higher education experience — that is certainly what we strive to do at Mississippi State University.
Mark E. Keenum, who holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, is the 19th president of Mississippi State University. Before leading MSU, Keenum served as the nation’s third highest-ranking agriculture official as the former Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services and is a former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss.