JEFFERSON CITY — Caitlin Steiner says if the state had cut her need-based scholarship, she might have had to leave the private liberal arts college she attends in central Missouri.
But to Ally Walker, who attends the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the scholarship program that helped Steiner has a fundamental unfairness: Students at private colleges can receive more than twice as much money as those attending public institutions.
Steiner and Walker represent a struggle in the Legislature over which students get how much scholarship money from the need-based Access Missouri Program.
The program currently offers maximum yearly scholarships of $4,600 to students at four-year private schools but only $2,150 for students at Missouri's four-year public colleges and universities.
Bills filed in both the House and Senate this year would eliminate that gap, setting a maximum yearly need-based scholarship of $2,850 for both groups of students.
A group of Republican lawmakers held a news conference Tuesday in support of the legislation, although the issue isn't partisan — Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon also supports leveling out the payments.
"It's really about equitable funding for need-based students," saidSen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. "If somebody chooses to attend a private school, well (they would be) on an equal footing with someone who attends a public school."
Supporters of the current system say students at private colleges need larger scholarships to help offset their tuition.
"When you have a more expensive school, you're going to have a higher need," said Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville.
The state budgeted $91.5 million for the Access Missouri Program this year, and Nixon has proposed a $2.5 million increase in the fiscal year that starts July 1. But Republican House budget writers have proposed to cut the program to $87 million next year.
Walker lobbies for a group of students at the four-campus University of Missouri system. She noted that 29 percent of the students in the program received roughly half of the funds.
"This is a fundamental discrepancy in state policy," she said.
Walker said students generally take on more debt at public schools and that private colleges have larger endowments to plan for long-term funding.
But Steiner, a senior at William Woods University in Fulton, said the scholarships have been key during her tenure at the small private school, where tuition is higher than at most public colleges.
"The money from Access Missouri has been able to keep me at William Woods," Steiner said. "I don't think they should take that away."
Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, sponsored the House bill setting $2,850 as the maximum annual scholarship for all students receiving Access Missouri aid.
But Kingery said his preference would be to set $4,600 — the current maximum for private college students — as the level for both public and private students. He said that would cost the state roughly $150 million per year.
"I don't want to hurt them," Kingery said of private school students. "I'd just like to raise us up to where public schools are at the same level."
Rupp said he would be interested in that proposal, instead of "artificially capping" the amounts that private school students receive.
The two tiers of scholarships were part of an agreement in 2007 to pass a college capital improvement package funded by the sale of student loans held by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. About 60 percent of the students who get loans through that agency go to private schools, but the construction projects were only at public colleges.
But Kingery said parts of that agreement — such as many of the capital projects and increased state funding to public universities — have not materialized.
House Leaders haven't assigned his bill to a committee, which prevents it from receiving a hearing. Kingery said he wants a hearing to work on a compromise this year so a bill can be passed in future sessions.