JEFFERSON CITY — While university administrators called it “the most important piece of education legislation in a decade,” a comprehensive bill on college tuition rates and the sale of assets of a college loan program ran into heavy debate before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
University of Missouri System President Elson Floyd and Truman State University President Barbara Dixon both praised the bill sponsored by committee chairman Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Jasper County.
Both university presidents said they support many of the bill’s provisions, including the merging of two need-based financial aid programs into a new Access Missouri Financial Assistance Fund, giving more power to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education and the plan to use $335 million of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority’s assets to fund new buildings.
“It is critical to higher education and to the people of Missouri that you pass this initiative,” Floyd said to the committee. “It is a creative plan that will move our state forward when it comes to creating jobs, creating better facilities for our students and faculty and advancing research that will improve the lives of Missourians.”
He added that the UM System Board of Curators passed a resolution in support of the plan and will comply with any requirement to obtain the funds, which includes the prohibition of embryonic stem cell research in any of the buildings that are funded from MOHELA’s assets.
But Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, criticized Floyd and the curators for their support of the bill and its requirement to prohibit stem cell research. He said that last year Floyd did not support any restrictions against research.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult for me to be able to vote for something that has anti-research and anti-stem cell restrictions tied to it,” Graham said. “As a person with a spinal cord injury; as a person with a brother with a spinal cord injury, who had a mother with muscular dystrophy who died of cancer, I’m extremely bothered that we would sign off on this.”
Floyd stood by his support of the bill and even urged the committee to “adopt an emergency clause so that money can start flowing to our schools.”
Other Democrats on the committee criticized the very concept of selling off MOHELA’s assets for building construction.
“I think this money could be utilized in another way,” said Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, who suggested MOHELA profits could be used for loan forgiveness and scholarships.
Floyd said he did not agree with everything in the bill. He asked for a rewrite of a provision that would require universities to include information in course listings about a professor’s background, and how much a teaching or graduate assistant will participate in the course.
He said because students can sign up for classes six months before the semester begins, it is often difficult to provide that information.
Floyd also asked for the revision of a portion of the bill that would punish universities for raising tuition beyond the inflation rate. He recommended only implementing that provision when the state appropriations to universities are at or above the consumer price index.
Nodler said he will reconsider the provision “if it really is the best decision.”
Another section of the bill that might change is a requirement for students to have a clean criminal background in order to receive money from the Access Missouri Financial Assistance Fund. .
“If someone is seeking a second chance, we want to give them the opportunity to get into the system,” Nodler said.
The committee took no immediate action on the measure. There are no immediate plans for the committee to vote on the bill.