JEFFERSON CITY — Dozens of private school students descended upon the Capitol on Wednesday to speak in opposition of a proposal to eliminate a higher state scholarship award for private college students.
Currently, the need-based, taxpayer funded Access Missouri scholarship grants low- and middle-income students of public four-year universities and Linn State Technical College in Jefferson City up to $2,150 per academic year, while students of private four-year institutions can receive up to $4,600. Almost 46,000 Missouri college students receive Access Missouri funds.
But Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has proposed a bill that would equalize the awards between the two groups.
He has once again proposed a bill that would cap the scholarship at $2,850 for all students who are eligible. He proposed a similar bill last year, but it stalled in the Senate Education Committee, which on Wednesday held a hearing for the new bill.
The Senate Lounge, where the hearing was held, was over capacity with students and administrators from colleges and universities across the state. Some students stood in the center aisle or sat on the floor in front of the committee to hear witnesses' testimony.
Testifying before the committee, Schaefer said private institutions are not subject to state budget cuts or proposed tuition caps, as public universities are.
This year, Gov. Jay Nixon struck a deal with the presidents of the state's four-year public universities to keep budget cuts at about 5 percent if they agreed to freeze tuition increases.
"We're telling the public schools of the state, the schools that we have a constitutional obligation to fund, 'You're not going to increase tuition, you're going to take a core cut. Oh, and by the way, you're going to take less than half of Access Missouri money,'" Schaefer said.
Students and representatives of public institutions testified in support of the legislation.
MU Chancellor Brady Deaton testified that in 2008, students at private institutions constituted "roughly" 29 percent of Access Missouri recipients, but received 52 percent of the money. Deaton said the measure would raise the median level of Access Missouri awards and increase the number of recipients at public institutions.
"This, in our view, is better public policy and a more efficient use of scarce state resources," Deaton said.
Joe Karl, speaking on behalf of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, told the committee that a downturn in the construction market has "taken a toll on his family," and he receives the Access Missouri scholarship to help pay his expenses.
"Equalizing this grant would demonstrate to students all across the state, no matter public or private, that their hard work is recognized," Karl said.
Like last year, Nixon supports Schaefer's plan. In his proposed budget this year, he has maintained the same $90.8 million allocation to the program that was approved last year.
Kristy Manning, a representative from Nixon's office, testified before the committee to reiterate his support for the measure.
Nixon's support, however, does not stretch across all executive departments. Last week, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education voted 5-1 against the legislation.
"This is not awards to institutions," Higher Education Commissioner Robert Stein said before the committee. "It's awards to students. They choose where they take that money."
Students from several private schools from across the state were in attendance to speak in opposition to the bill.
Kayla Kell, a student at Webster University in St. Louis and an Access Missouri recipient, held back tears as she told senators that she grew up in poverty, and is the first person from her family to attend college.
"My mom would help me if she could, but she can't, so this money is a huge deal to me," she said.