JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's higher education board came out in opposition Thursday to legislation that would change the way scholarship money is divided among students at public and private universities.
About 47,000 students have received financial aid this year under the Access Missouri scholarship, which covers people from lower- and middle-class families.
The 2007 law that created the program allowed maximum scholarships of $1,000 annually for students at community colleges, $2,150 for those at public universities and $4,600 for students at private universities.
Supporters of the current scholarship model say it covers about one-quarter of the tuition and fees for students at either public or private universities. But Gov. Jay Nixon and some lawmakers want to change the program so that it provides the same amount of money to students at public and private schools.
A bill by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, that is scheduled for a committee hearing on Wednesday would raise the maximum scholarship level to $1,250 for students at community colleges and set it at $2,850 for students at either public or private universities. The new scholarship amounts would begin in the 2014-15 academic year, allowing time for current freshmen to finish their degrees under the existing scholarship model.
The state Coordinating Board for Higher Education voted 5-1 Thursday to support the current scholarship amounts. That position will be shared with legislators considering the proposed changes.
"All sectors — public and private — agreed on these award amounts" when the law passed three years ago, said board member Mary Beth Luna Wolf of St. Louis. "The proposed legislation is not based on an agreement between the sectors."
The lone dissenting vote was cast by board chairman Lowell Kruse, who said conditions have changed since the 2007 law.
"State support for public institutions is not at the level that was anticipated at the time, and they are struggling," Kruse said.
A report released Thursday by the State Higher Education Executive Officers shows that Missouri ranks near the top nationally in recent funding increases for higher education. Funding rose by 6 percent from 2009 to 2010 — the fourth highest rate — and by 15 percent from 2008 to 2010, second only to North Dakota.
But Missouri was starting from a low point. The report ranked Missouri 45th among the 50 states in per capita funding for higher education in 2008.
Nixon has proposed funding cuts for public colleges and universities during the 2010-11 academic year to help balance the state budget.
He has not proposed cuts in student financial aid. But the current amount of state funding already is short of what is needed to provide students the maximum amount allowed under the Access Missouri program.
Students are getting scholarships of $780 this year at community colleges, $1,680 at public universities and $3,590 at private universities — about 78 percent of the maximum allowed under the law, said Leroy Wade, the assistant state higher education commissioner for financial assistance.
Of the nearly 47,000 students who received scholarships during the fall semester, 52 percent were at public universities, 29 percent at private institutions and 19 percent at community colleges, Wade said.