Governor’s plan for college grants upsets private schools

| News Editor

A group of private colleges and universities in Missouri that includes Washington University is distraught over Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposal to lower the maximum award private college students can receive from the Access Missouri grant program.

The new governor’s proposal would change the maximum Access Missouri award for any four-year college student in Missouri to $2,850 per year starting in fiscal 2010. Students at four-year private institutions can currently receive up to $4,600 in Access Missouri grants each year, while students at four-year public institutions can receive up to $2,150.

Access Missouri grants are need-based awards for full-time students from Missouri attending a post-secondary institution in the state.

Nixon’s press secretary, Scott Holste, told Student Life that the primary reason Nixon wants to make the maximum award equal for private and public school students is that the grants are taxpayer funded.

“They’re an important part of ensuring that students in Missouri are able to get a quality education,” Holste said. “We’ve got great schools, great universities in Missouri, both public and private, and we want to continue to have a well-trained workforce. Because this is taxpayer money, the governor believes we should have equal distribution on those grants.”

The total monetary amount of grants would stay at its current level of $95.8 million under the new plan, with $2.5 million in additional funding to offset inflation, Holste said.

According to Missouri Department of Higher Education (MDHE) spokesperson Kathy Love, 42,244 students have received Access Missouri grants this academic year.

Roughly 50 percent of funds go to private school students. Twenty-nine percent of award recipients in the 2007-2008 academic year attended private institutions.

The measure, which is part of the state’s annual budget, must first pass the Missouri General Assembly. The state’s budget is expected to be a hot topic during the current legislative session as the new administration faces a more than $250 million budget shortfall this year.

Leaders of some public universities are praising the proposal. Gary Forsee, president of the University of Missouri System, released a statement on Jan. 28 supporting the governor’s plan.

“Students who attend private institutions are currently eligible for more than twice the funding of those who choose to attend public institutions,” Forsee said. “The governor is on the right track to make this a fair and balanced financial aid program that will improve access to higher education for all students.”

The proposal comes after Nixon’s pledge to maintain the current level of funding for Missouri public colleges in fiscal 2010 in exchange for tuition freezes, in light of the economic crisis.

But there is some concern that the changes to Access Missouri would compromise the ability for students receiving the grants to pay for private institutions, according to Rose Windmiller, director of state relations and local government affairs at Washington University.

Windmiller told Student Life that Access Missouri, which was devised with input from experts in Missouri’s private and public education sectors, is doing its job. She said the University does not support Nixon’s proposal.

“Our argument for graduated awards is that students at public institutions are already receiving the benefit of substantial state subsidy to public institutions, which helps them with a lower tuition rate than private institutions, because private institutions don’t have the benefit of direct state support,” Windmiller said. “The most important thing is funding the student and the school that best fits their need, whether it’s a public four-year institution, a community college or an independent institution.”

A position paper released by the University of Missouri System, however, argues that the 50 percent rate at which Access Missouri grants go to private school students is too much higher than the national average of 33 percent.

The tough economy and the 4.4 percent rise in the University’s tuition next academic year mean that the changes, if passed, would have “a pretty big effect” on the ability of University students receiving Access Missouri grants to pay for their educations, senior Alexandra Jensen said.

“You just have to try really hard to get money to come here. It doesn’t come easily, so you have to either get a grant or some sort of scholarship, or you just have to be rich,” Jensen said.

According to Windmiller, 158 Washington University students received Access Missouri grants totaling $547,000 in the 2007-2008 academic year.

A spokesperson for Fontbonne University, a private school with more than 500 students receiving Access Missouri awards, criticized the proposal, addressing the issue in light of Missouri’s budget shortfall.

“We realize the state government must address budget shortfalls, but we should not balance Missouri’s budget at the expense of students trying to fulfill their dream,” said Mark Johnson, Fontbonne’s director of communications, in a statement to Student Life Monday afternoon.

On Jan. 30, the Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri (ICUM), of which the University and Fontbonne are members, also issued a statement criticizing Nixon’s plan, saying that it “would amount to a tax increase for some working and lower-income families in our state.”

The proposal has not been introduced to committee in the General Assembly yet, but discussions about the plan continue in the executive branch. MDHE’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education will discuss the Access Missouri changes with the presidents and academic officers of Missouri schools at its meeting tomorrow in Wildwood, Mo.

ICUM and a recently formed coalition of Missouri parents, students and educators called Keep Me in College are lobbying state lawmakers to vote down the changes, Windmiller said.

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