CATEGORY: Governor

AUTHOR: BOBBY

HED:Fordice signs tuition assistance bill

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON - Gov. Kirk Fordice made the trek from downtown Jackson to the most affluent city in the state Friday to sign a bill that would provide college tuition for low- and middle-income families.

The Student Tuition Assistance Trust Fund bill provides tuition to needy students at any state-supported university or community college. Fordice signed the bill into law Friday at Rosa Scott Middle School in Madison, a suburb about 25 minutes from downtown Jackson.

The bill would provide state-paid tuition for any student meeting certain academic requirements and whose family income is under $30,000 per year. The maximum income level in which families could qualify for the state-supported tuition would rise $5,000 for each child under age 21. For instance, a family with three children under age 21 could have an income of $40,000 and still qualify for the tuition help.

"Education is the key that unlocks the gate to the future," said Fordice, who was flanked by Rosa Scott sixth- and seventh-grade students and legislators who helped pass the bill. "If a society denies this key to any young person who really wishes to travel this path, then we cannot claim to be a just society."

Also joining Fordice for the news conference/bill signing was his friend, New Orleans businessman Pat Taylor. The bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Fordice is similar to programs in 12 other states throughout the country.

The plan was developed by Taylor, a successful businessman, who was provided a free education at Louisiana State University, and who has worked to ensure that other students receive the same opportunity. The governor and Taylor are good friends and traveled to Africa together on a wild game safari during Fordice's first term.

By enacting the bill, Taylor said, "Mississippi is opening a road - a road wide enough to accommodate all of our children."

But Taylor, who said he is a Republican, stressed that the bill is not a giveaway program. He said students must meet stringent academic requirements to qualify for the tuition assistance.

Those requirements include:

- Making at least 20 on the ACT college entrance exam.

- Having a grade point average of at least 2.5 and completing at least 17.5 units of core classes, such as in English, advanced math and the sciences.

While Fordice voiced strong support for the bill Friday, it has not been a program that he has talked about in speeches and he has not made it part of his formal legislative agenda. But Heath Hall, a Fordice spokesman, said the governor has supported the program for a long time.

The program's two most vocal advocates have been Gulf Coast Sens. Clyde Woodfield of Gulfport and Tommy Gollott of Biloxi. Both have been working since the late 1980s to have the legislation enacted, Gollott said.

He said the bill had passed the Senate before, but died in the House. After passing the Senate this year, Gollott said Taylor came to Jackson to meet with members of the House to help convince them to pass the bill.

Woodfield and Gollott, both Democrats, were at Friday's news conference along with Fordice and Taylor.

Fordice said the news conference was held at the Madison middle school because its seventh- and eighth-grade students had the highest achievement scores in the state.

"These young people have already learned the value of high goals, hard work and the diligent pursuit of excellence," Fordice said.

But Rosa Scott Middle School might produce fewer students eligible for the program than some other schools in the state. Most of the Rosa Scott students live in the city of Madison, which according to the 1990 census, had a median family income of $55,165, which is the highest in the state and more than $25,00 above the state average.

State Sen. Dick Hall, D-Madison, and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the bill will cost the state about $500,000 during the upcoming year. Hall, who also was at the news conference, said the program could cost as much as $10 million annually in future years, but he thought it would level out at between $4 million and $5 million annually.

The Office of state Student Financial Aid currently is putting together an application process that should be prepared by July, which is when the program goes into effect.

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