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New program pays for Coast high school students to earn college credit

Jess Woods of Vancleave and her mother, Kathleen, fill out financial-aid paperword at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jackson County campus.
Jess Woods of Vancleave and her mother, Kathleen, fill out financial-aid paperword at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Jackson County campus. MGCCC

High school students who want to earn college credit but lack the money to do so, take note.

Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is one of only two schools in the state participating in a federal pilot program that pays for high school students to earn college credit.

Federal Pell grants have always been reserved for college students. For the first time in Pell grants history, high schools students will be eligible under the pilot program. Since 1965, the grants have been offered to students with financial need who have not earned their first bachelor’s degree or who are enrolled in certain post-baccalaureate programs. And unlike student loans, the Pell grants do not have to be repaid.

The pilot program is open to high school juniors and seniors taking dual-enrollment courses that include college course work. There’s a wide variety of class schedules, including online, weekend and night courses.

MGCCC applied as soon as it learned the U.S. Department of Education was launching the program. Carmen Walters, the school’s executive vice president of Enrollment and Student Success, said six high schools already are teamed with MGCCC in dual-enrollment courses. She expects more to get on board.

“We’ve talked to all high schools in our district,” Walters said. “They’re all interested. We’re waiting to hear back from the U.S. Department of Education to see if they’ll be approved.”

Low-income students benefit

Dual-enrollment courses can lead to better grades in high school, increased enrollment in college, greater credit accumulation and increased rates of credential attainment, according to the Department of Education.

Pell grants are especially helpful for first-generation college students and those from low-income families. Less than 10 percent of children born in the bottom quarter of household incomes earns a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared with more than 50 percent in the top quarter, according to the Department of Education.

And nearly half of institutions with dual-enrollment programs show most students pay out of pocket to attend.

“We are excited about this incredible opportunity for high school students in South Mississippi to begin their college education with financial aid to help defray the cost,” MGCCC President Mary Graham said. “We are very pleased that MGCCC was chosen as one of the pilot sites. This program has the potential to make a difference in so many students’ lives.”

The pilot program will undergo a three-year test phase, and affiliated schools will collect data and report back to the Department of Education.

The department said when it introduced the program it hopes to learn about the impact of providing earlier access to financial aid on low-income students’ college access, participation and success.

Expected increase

More than 400 high school students take college-level courses at one of MGCCC’s campuses, and Walters expects that number to increase. She said so far very few take advantage of the opportunity to get a Pell grant.

Gulfport High School is part of MGCCC’s program, district spokeswoman MC Price Burton said.

“It’s amazing. Not only are these 16-year-olds getting college credit but they are being exposed to the college environment,” she said.

Nationwide, an estimated 10,000 students will have access to about $20 million in grants through the pilot program. Jackson State University is the only other school in Mississippi participating in the program.

MGCCC already has started enrolling students in the program. Students interested in participating this semester can still register for the semester’s second start, which begins Oct. 14.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory