This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2010 - At first, the big fight shaping up over scholarships at Missouri colleges and universities appeared to be whether students at private schools would continue to be eligible for more money than those at public ones.
Now, if Gov. Jay Nixon has his way, students at private schools won't get any money at all.
At issue is the program called Access Missouri, which last year gave out $44.1 million in financial aid to students in the state attending public institutions and $48.5 million to students at private institutions. Students at public colleges were eligible for up to $2,150 a year; those at private schools could qualify for as much as $4,600 a year.
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsored legislation that would lower the private school amount and raise the amount for public school aid, so that both would top out at the same figure, $2,850.
Schaefer said his bill, and a companion sponsored by Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, are moving forward, with the Senate possibly taking up the measure next week.
"We want to be as wise as we can be with the school money we've got," Schaefer said in an interview Friday, "and we want to be as fair as we can with the students.
"We're simply telling students up front that if you choose the more expensive private option, you can have the same amount of money as someone who chooses the public option."
But while the equalization bills were being discussed in the Capitol, Nixon was coming up with his own higher education arithmetic lesson. Citing the state's dire financial situation, he announced last week that he wants to drop any money for students at private institutions from the Access Missouri program, plus two other scholarship plans.
Together, the three scholarships provided $52.3 million for students at private schools last year, which was 48.2 percent of the total for the three pots of financial aid.
By dropping the private students, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said, the state would be able to save $52 million. He said the move was purely a budgetary one, not a philosophy favoring public schools over private ones.
"We have to look at what the state can afford right now," Holste said, "and scholarships for students who attend private schools may not be one of the things the state can afford."
POWWOW OF COLLEGE OFFICIALS
In the face of the Schaefer and Kingery bills, but before the governor announced his plan, Missouri's commissioner of higher education, Robert B. Stein, had called a meeting of representatives of public universities, private universities and community colleges to a meeting in Columbia.
After that four-hour session earlier this week, the group issued a statement saying that "state scholarships should recognize and support access and choice by Missouri students" and continue the policy of awards based on student need. They also agreed with the change to equalize maximum grants to students at private and public four-year schools but urged that any changes be delayed so they do not affect students currently on campus.
They also emphasized the role of their institutions in the state's financial health and noted that money for students should be considered an investment, not an expense, so when Missouri's economic fortunes improve, scholarship aid should increase as well, along with support for colleges and universities as a whole.
"Higher education is a driver of economic strength and growth in the state," the statement from the group said. "As additional resources become available, the state must recognize its obligation to meet the increased financial aid challenges faced by Missouri's most needy students while also improving the state's rank in support for public institutional operating budgets."
Members of that small group took the message back to their communities. Still unresolved is whether there is general backing for community college students to receive equal treatment and whether students who are entering college this fall should be protected from the cuts.
AN INVESTMENT, NOT AN EXPENSE
Marianne Inman, president of Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., and head of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri -- the group that represents private schools -- said the group is committed to working for a solution that is the best for students.
She said Nixon's proposal, doing away with all aid for students at private institutions, "would be very problematic."
Noting that the cut would affect 15,500 students, Inman said:
"If that were to happen immediately, there is most likely not a way that independent colleges and universities could make up that gap out of our own resources, or discount tuition further. It's also most unlikely that those students could find their way into the public sector because many institutions there are at capacity or over capacity.
"Maybe some students would choose to go out of state, and the tendency there is that they would stay in that state to work, to raise their families and to pay their taxes. The worst scenario is that they might drop out of school altogether and feel that college is now beyond them. That would be a tragedy, I think, not only for them as individuals but for the loss of capability and capacity for a strong workforce for Missouri."
Inman noted that in Missouri, nearly 40 percent of all enrollment is at private schools, which she said is almost the twice the national average, and almost 50 percent of the degrees awarded come from private schools. Besides providing substantial amounts of financial aid from their own budgets, she said, the schools help the state by relieving pressure on the enrollment at public institutions.
"We are very mindful of the state's budget woes," Inman said. "We do not believe that those woes should be solved, however, on the backs of the neediest students. Many, many, many of them are first-generation students, rural, have high financial need and perhaps are in the category of at-risk. For those at fairly small institutions, which can give them a lot of individual attention, their best chance at success is at a small independent college."
TIME FOR EQUALIZATION
Inman also said that in some cases, students have to go to private schools or out of the state because public campuses do not offer the programs they need. But Schaefer, the state senator, said such a claim is dubious.
"I'm not really sure what type of programs someone couldn't have met in the state of Missouri," he said. "If that's the case, there are probably other reasons their needs couldn't be met besides financial."
He said he has heard from students on both sides of the issue, with most of the feedback coming from those who say their private education is more expensive - a notion that Schaefer says needs to be qualified in one important way.
"If you take Washington University out of the equation and leave the University of Missouri system in the equation," he said, "it's not true that all privates are more expensive than all publics.
"I don't know of any other circumstances that when we are using tax dollars, we reward a more expensive option."
He expects that the roughly $95 million budget for the Access Missouri scholarships will remain intact for the 2011 budget.
"I don't know that realistically, the governor's proposal is something that could make it through the House and Senate," Schaefer said. "I think my proposal is."
Stein, the higher education commissioner, is already dealing with another of Nixon's proposal -- merging his department with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for an agency that deals with schools from toddlers on up to graduates. He welcomed the suggestion, saying that centralizing administrative functions could save the state money.
But he wants to make sure that the state's role in helping students pay the bill for higher education remains strong.
"There is a very clear commitment -- from the president on down and with my colleagues throughout the nation -- that we need more access and success and graduation of college students to be competitive in the global economy," Stein said. "This is a national agenda. We have to understand that higher education is an economic driver.
"We cannot simply shrink our way to excellence. At the same time, we can't spend money that we don't have, so we have to come up with creative solutions."
Stein has announced he will retire on July 1, and he said this week that "it is very difficult to watch what is going on in the nation and what is going in this state. I'm going to do my best in the time I have remaining on the job to have a constructive impact on the hard decisions."
A few of those tough decisions were announced Friday. The Coordinating Board for Higher Education, Stein's boss, announced it has suspended the search for his successor because of the state's financial shortfall and until more is known about the merger of the two education departments.
The hiring was postponed for from four to six weeks, said Lowell Kruse, chairman of the board.
Stein also said he is working on a plan to cut about 25 percent of the department's 31 positions that are funded with some general revenue before the end of the fiscal year and is reorganizing assignments to make sure the smaller staff can work as efficiently as possible and perform the duties required by law.