Access Missouri scholarship program up for debate

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | 5:04 p.m. CDT; updated 10:40 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 24, 2010

COLUMBIA — March has been an interesting month for Access Missouri, a need-based scholarship program for in-state students:

  • First, Gov. Jay Nixon proposed students attending private institutions would not receive Access Missouri funds.
  • Then, public, private and community college presidents held a meeting to seek common ground.
  • Meanwhile, two Access Missouri bills are circulating the Missouri legislature.

The point of contention with the taxpayer-funded program, which began in the 2007-08 academic year, is the difference in award amounts for students depending on whether they attend public and private schools.

Students attending private school can get more than twice as much as their public school counterparts. The maximum for a private school is $4,600 while the maximum for a public school is $2,150. That's only $150 more than the minimum for a private school student. All amounts apply to four-year schools.

Last week, 10 university presidents representing their sectors met at the home of Gary Forsee, president of the University of Missouri System, to discuss Access Missouri. Robert Stein, state commissioner of higher education, served as facilitator.

Forsee has been vocal about his opposition to the inequality of Access Missouri scholarships, while the Independent Sector of Missouri Colleges and Universities has supported the program in its current incarnation.

Marianne Inman, president of Central Methodist University in Fayette, described the almost four-hour meeting as a candid and professional conversation. The presidents crafted a framework of eight principles to help guide public policy on need-based financial aid.

Inman called the first principle, which advocates that the state provide need-based financial aid to students attending any college, “absolutely essential.”

Inman has been the president at Central Methodist, a private school, for 15 years. In her experience as president, it was the first time she attended a meeting that brought all sectors of higher education together to address a particular issue.

“It’s very important for our lawmakers and political leaders to take seriously how the presidents of these institutions feel,” Inman said.

During a speech in Springfield this month, Nixon proposed eliminating access to state scholarship programs for those attending private schools. “But in times like these, we simply can’t continue to subsidize the choice to attend a private school,” Nixon said.

One response came from Washington University in St. Louis, which issued a statement saying the proposal could force potential students to leave Missouri for college or prevent them from going to any college.

“The governor’s plan to end student aid to a large portion of Missouri residents is misguided and potentially devastating to Missouri families and students,” the private institution’s statement said.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he doesn’t know whether Nixon’s proposal would have a realistic chance of passing through the legislature.

Currently, two bills about equalizing Access Missouri scholarships are in the Missouri legislature. The House bill has passed through the higher education committee, and the Senate bill has been debated on the floor, but there has been no vote.

Schaefer, sponsor of the Senate bill, said he thinks public and private school scholarships should be equal.

“There isn’t a justification to use taxpayer dollars to spend twice as much money on private school students,” Schaefer said.

The bills, if passed, would set the award amounts at $1,500 minimum and $2,850 maximum for all students attending a four-year institution starting in the 2014-15 academic year. The bills would also eliminate the end date of Access Missouri, which is scheduled to end after the 2013-14 academic year.

"It's important that the sunset is removed so all eligible students can count on this financial assistance instead of worrying about it every year or every several years," Inman said.

Schaefer said a vote on the Senate bill could take place as early as next week.

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