Push to expand tuition aid plan

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 | 9:02 p.m. CDT; updated 12:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Some students from families earning as much as $200,000 annually could receive Missouri’s financial-need college scholarships as a result of a deal struck Wednesday by state budget writers.

The Access Missouri program has helped more than 38,000 students from lower and middle-class families pay their tuition this year at public and private universities.

Under an agreement by House and Senate budget negotiators, the scholarship program would be expanded next year to cover a projected 49,000 students, including several thousand from wealthier families.

Republican supporters said even upper middle-class families have trouble paying for college tuition.

But Democratic opponents countered that the state doesn’t provide wealthier families other public benefits, such as health care, and should instead pump more money directly into the state’s higher education institutions.

“We’re talking about people who make in the upper 3 percent of 4 percent of the income levels. For us to say that’s needs-based, that’s absurd,” said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, who argued unsuccessfully against the scholarship expansion.

The 2007 law that created Access Missouri provides scholarships of between $300 and $1,000 for students at public community colleges; between $1,000 and $2,150 for students at public universities; and between $2,000 and $4,600 for students at private universities.

It requires all students whose families can be expected to contribute $12,000 toward their college education — typically families with adjusted gross incomes of up to $72,000 — to receive at least the minimum scholarship.

If state funding is insufficient to fully cover all eligible students, the scholarships can be prorated. That’s what happened this year, when the state appropriated about $72 million for the program.

If the state provides more than enough money, the law allows scholarships to be awarded to students with expected family contributions of greater than $12,000. That’s what Gov. Matt Blunt and legislative budget writers are seeking to do.

The negotiated budget would provide $95.8 million for the program next year, slightly less than what Blunt and the House had proposed. That amount of money would cover expected growth plus make scholarships available to about 6,500 students whose families earn more than the current cutoff, said Paul Wagner, the state’s deputy higher education commissioner.

Some scholarships could go to families expected to contribute up to $21,000 annually to their college education, meaning those families could have adjusted gross incomes of a little more than $200,000, Wagner said.

But some Republican lawmakers said those income levels — while appearing high — are deceiving.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, used to own a college preparatory company that helped families plan financially and academically for their children’s education. Federal guidelines add such things as retirement savings and real estate holdings on top of a families’ income, which often raises how much they are expected to pay toward their children’s education and reduces the amount of scholarships they can receive, Rupp said.

A family earning $80,000 to $90,000, for example, might be expected to pay $24,000 toward their child’s education — more than one-fourth of their income, Rupp said.

“Really, the middle-class families are the ones being crunched,” Rupp said.

Given such scenarios, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler argued that wealthier families need college tuition aid just as lower-income families do.

“For someone making $200,000 with four kids in college, I’m not sure a scholarship opportunity for that family is inappropriate at all, particularly with the tax burden they pay,” said Nodler, R-Joplin.

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