Home One community ‘From zero’: How a community-run program gets more kids into college

‘From zero’: How a community-run program gets more kids into college

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Maple Smith has lived her entire adult life in Greenville, except for her four undergraduate years at Mississippi State University. A secretary in the city clerk’s office, she’s looking for ways to, as she puts it, “sow seeds” in Greenville in her spare time – which she has a lot more of, now that her three kids are off to college. .

In 2018, the mayor’s office invited Smith to join a new initiative called the Greenville College Access Network that would help local students gain financial aid for college. The idea was that if more local students could go to college, more businesses would be attracted to create better-paying jobs in Greenville, Mayor Errick Simmons said.

Nearly three years later, Smith has lost count of the number of hours she has spent helping Greenville students apply for financial aid. With her co-coordinator, Sheila Watson, she created PowerPoint presentations and brochures to help students navigate the tedious application for federal student financial aid. Both women have made a marked difference in the number of students in their community who receive college financial aid: This year, FAFSA requests at Greenville High School more than doubled, according to Get2College.

“We started this from scratch,” Smith said.

The price of tuition is one of the biggest barriers to college in Mississippi. As the legislature has cut funding for higher education, universities across the state have steadily raised tuition. The cost of education now absorbs about a quarter of the annual income of working-class families in Mississippi. This is impacting college enrollment rates statewide and in Greenville in particular, where 17% of adults hold a bachelor’s or associate’s degree compared to the national average of 30%.

In recent years, the Mississippi Office of Student Financial Aid has worked to increase the number of low-income students who receive the Higher Education Legislative Plan for Needy Students, or HELP, grant. which pays for the four years of college studies. Despite the effectiveness of the HELP grant, the Post-Secondary Board, which oversees state financial aid, cited the program’s rising cost as a reason for revamping it.

Last year, the board proposed a new policy that would have resulted in black and low-income students receiving less financial aid. The policy was created by a panel of financial aid officers at universities and colleges across the state, without input from students or parents like Smith and Watson – who know firsthand the life-shattering effect that the HELP grant may have on students.

“It is imperative that students take advantage of the HELP grant,” Watson said.

Prior to the official launch of GCAN in April 2021, the Mayor’s Office invited Smith, Watson and other local parents and high school students to participate in a brainstorming session to identify issues that are preventing students in Greenville after attending college. The session was led by Carol Cutler White, a professor at Mississippi State University who won the initial grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service that supported GCAN’s efforts.

There is no public transit in Greenville, so it can be difficult for parents to attend varsity nights at local high schools. And some parents might work. Internet access is spotty, which can make it difficult for students and parents to complete the electronic version of the FAFSA. The pandemic only made that more difficult, Watson said, when many parents were laid off and lost WiFi access provided by their work.

“COVID really put a damper on our community, and our graduation rates were really low,” Watson said. She felt that students were “giving up on going to college.”

Ideally, local high schools would offer the services provided by GCAN. But counselors, overworked and underpaid, often don’t have time to help students apply for financial aid, Smith said. Although she had sent three children to college, Smith had never heard a counselor mention the HELP grant.

“Until I started working with Greenville CAN – and that shows you how little information we sometimes get – I didn’t know anything, nothing, about the HELP grant,” Smith said. “Just imagine if I had known anything about the HELP grant.”

“That’s why now when I talk to these kids, and I talk to these parents, I drill into them – I drill, I drill, I drill – the HELP grant,” Smith added, “because it’s is a grant that has been withheld from us for far too long.

Shelia Watson and GCAN volunteers Marva Johnson and Tashunda Mosley at a recent volunteer mix. Credit: Courtesy of Maple Smith

Every Monday and Wednesday at 5 p.m., and twice a month on Saturdays, Smith and Watson hold a table at the Percy Memorial Library, a public library in downtown Greenville. When GCAN started in April, they waited hours for anyone to come. But word spread quickly when Smith and Watson enlisted volunteers in local fraternities, sororities and churches. As more and more students showed up, they referred their friends to Smith and Watson.

Now the two women hear from so many students who want help with the FAFSA that they respond to requests at all hours of the day. At 7:30 p.m. on a recent Friday night, Smith planned to help a student complete the FAFSA over Zoom. She heard about two students already in college who wanted her help talking to the financial aid office.

Over the next year, Simmons said the mayor’s office plans to expand the initiative, including changing its name to Greenville College Access and Attainment Network.

The addition of the word “achievement” signals a commitment from the mayor’s office to bring students back to Greenville after they graduate from college, Simmons said. The network will also expand to support this goal: White, the MSU professor, has received a new grant from AmeriCorp that will add 15-20 GCAN members to work as student mentors, essentially formalizing the work that currently do Smith and Watson.

Like Smith, Watson was born and raised in Greenville but left to attend college at Mississippi Valley State University. She worked in adult education under the Mississippi Department of Labor. Now Watson teaches English Language Arts at Weddington Elementary, where she is a sixth grade graduate.

Watson has seen the difference any post-secondary degree can make in a student’s life. Her hope for the students is that once the students graduate, they will return to Greenville like she did.

“It’s up to the student…to give back to their community before they go somewhere else,” Watson said. “That’s what we see now: students helping out, giving back to family first.”

Editor’s Note: Get2College is a program of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, a Mississippi Today donor.

— Article credit to Molly Minta of Mississippi Today —