Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. Nov. 12, 2021.

Editorial: Who should get financial Aid?

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum probably did not intend to set off a public debate about the best use of financial aid for college-bound students. But his remarks, aired in a recent story from Mississippi Today, have generated a discussion worth having.

Should Mississippi put its limited financial aid dollars into helping those least able to afford college, or should it use them as a way to stem the state’s brain drain?

An education board on which Keenum sits is somewhere in the middle but leaning toward putting a heavier emphasis on merit scholarships than need-based ones.

The Post-Secondary Board, which oversees college financial aid in Mississippi, has proposed that the state replace its three current financial aid programs with a single program it’s calling the “Mississippi One Grant.” As outlined, recipients for these tuition grants would be selected based on income and ACT score together, as opposed to the current setup that judges these criteria under separate grant programs. The state Legislature is expected to consider the proposal after it convenes in January.

Keenum, the only university president on the board, said in a video meeting recorded on Zoom late last year that too much of the state’s financial aid is currently going to low-performing students who aren’t equipped to do college work, or at least aren’t equipped to do it at his university. Still, these students are admitted because of the low uniform admissions standards Mississippi adopted years ago at all of its universities as a remedy to past segregation.

Some students show up in Starkville, Keenum said, “with a 15 or 16 or 17 on their ACT and a 2.0 grade point average, barely get out of high school. They’re not a candidate to come to Mississippi State, but I can’t deny them enrollment. But we’ve given them funding to come to Mississippi State. We should not do that.”

Financial aid questions aside, it is true that higher education in Mississippi has been watered down by saying a score of 15 on the ACT is good enough for admission to college (except for student athletes, who have to do better than that in order to meet NCAA rules). The lower standard may have served a worthy purpose in fostering greater racial integration at the historically white universities, but there was a downside. It caused universities to put a lot more resources into remedial instruction in an effort to catch students up who came out of high school woefully unprepared. Universities were forced to assume a role that the junior colleges primarily served in the past.

Changing how financial aid is awarded might be a suitable way to get universities out of the remediation business if it could be achieved in a racially neutral way. According to the reporting by Mississippi Today, however, the “One Grant” proposal would disproportionately penalize Black students, who would see their aid drop on average by $573 a year while the average white student would receive $63 more. That disparity is not acceptable in a state with a troublesome past of discriminating against Black students in higher education.

There is also the question of whether merit-based aid achieves the goal of keeping the so-called “best and brightest” in the state. These kinds of scholarships may encourage high achievers to stay in state for college, but it doesn’t mean they will remain once they graduate. From what we can tell, Mississippi’s main problem is not that too many students are going out of state for college; it’s that too many leave after they have received the education partially bankrolled by Mississippi taxpayers.

The most likely remedy to the post-college brain drain is not merit scholarships. It’s providing the job opportunities and the quality of life that these young people are looking for once they are on their own.

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The (Columbus) Dispatch. Nov. 10, 2021.

Editorial: The promise of a more inclusive Pilgrimage

On Monday, the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau board agreed to provide $75,000 to Columbus Preservation Society for the 2022 Columbus Pilgrimage, ending a simmering dispute between the CVB and its non-profit subsidiary, the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, which has operated the annual event and the Preservation Society, a group of homeowners whose properties have been among the main features of the Pilgrimage.

The Preservation Society was founded in 2019 partially in response to criticism historic home owners had on the way the Spring Tour of Homes was produced. The homeowners said they weren’t being properly compensated for the cost in preparing their homes for the event, but the criticism went well beyond that. The group felt money generated by the event — CVB Director Nancy Carpenter had often calculated the economic impact in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — could help identify and restore other historic sites as well as tell a more inclusive story of the city’s history.

The split, at least initially, was not amicable. The CVB agreed to turn over the home tour to the homeowners, but wanted to retain control over all other ancillary events that have become part of Pilgrimage.

The idea of two organizations staging parallel events has always seemed dubious to us.

Monday’s agreement will allow the Preservation Society full control and responsibility for the event, which will return March 23-April 17 after a two-year hiatus.

Preservation Society members promise a new way of looking at Pilgrimage, one that tells a broader, more inclusive story of the city. Better stated, we believe what is needed is a more accurate telling of that history, The Preservation Society promises to do that.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges facing Pilgrimage is understanding what it is and what it should be. Is it a tourist event or a community event? Can it be both? Should it be both?

Certainly, the abundance of those grand old homes have great appeal to visitors. But those homes tell a very narrow story, a story centered largely around the lives of the rich and powerful and prominent at the height of their influence and prestige.

But as a community event, an event that focuses primarily on hoop skirts and homes most of us could never have afford to live in has little appeal.

Tell us our story, and you’ll have our interest.

That’s the challenge the Preservation Society has accepted, and it’s interesting to note that there was a fair amount of haggling over how many CVB tax dollars should be directed to the “new” Pilgrimage.

Carpenter noted the $75,000 finally approved by the board exceeded the amount of money devoted to five other CVB-supported festivals combined.

What she neglected to note is that the CVB devoted far more than $75,000 to previous Pilgrimages ($116,000 in 2016, according to records obtained by the Preservation Society in 2019 when it first announced its intention to assume control of the event).

To whom much is given, much is required.

If the “new” Pilgrimage proves to be merely the result of a power struggle over who’s running the show, we question the wisdom of the funding.

If, instead, Pilgrimage evolves into something that will better serve our community, both as a tourism event and a community event, it may prove a wise investment.

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