Students turn out to debate Access Missouri

The proposed bill would equalize public and private school funding.
A student walks toward the Student Financial Aid Office on Thursday afternoon in the basement of Jesse Hall. More than 4,650 MU students receive money through the Access Missouri program, which could equalize public and private college scholarship funding if a Missouri Senate bill passes.

JEFFERSON CITY — Senior Joe Karl could use an extra $700.

Because of the economy, his father's income has taken a hit and so has his financial support for college. Karl was one of about 50 students who packed the room of a Senate education committee meeting Wednesday to debate equalizing Access Missouri grant money for public and private school students. A proposed bill would boost the public-school maximum amount by $700 and reduce the private-school maximum by $1,750.

"Students all throughout this state are working hard to attend college," said Karl, who receives money through Access Missouri but also works two jobs to help pay for school.

Access Missouri, a taxpayer-funded, need-based scholarship established in 2007, grants private-school students between $2,000 and $4,600 and public-school students between $1,000 and $2,150. The grants are awarded to low- and middle-income students and are being used by 4,655 MU students this academic year, for a total of $6,509,016.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, sponsored the legislation that would equalize the funding between four-year public and private universities so there would be a $1,500 minimum and $2,850 maximum for each. He said the economic struggles and lack of funding for higher education is a reason to provide students with equal funding.

In the same 2007 bill that established Access Missouri, tuition caps were set on public institutions. Because of an inability to raise tuition past a certain level, the UM system struck an agreement with the state last year to keep tuition and funding levels stagnant, and that's been proposed again this year.

"We're telling the public schools — those we have a constitutional responsibility to fund — that they need to keep tuition flat, they need to take a 5.2 percent cut across the board and by the way, you're going to get half the grant money as private schools," Schaefer said during his testimony at the committee meeting.

After Schafer spoke, students from a diverse group of colleges testified about how much the grants impacted their ability to access to higher education. A number of MU students spoke, but the most memorable testimony came from Kayla Kell, a student at the private Webster University.

"This money is a huge deal to me. I've lived at poverty level all of my life, and without the grant throughout my career I would owe $12,100 tacked on to the other money I owe," she said, bursting into tears.

Most people there agreed the grants should be awarded based on needs but disagreed on how to do that fairly. Proponents of the legislation said disproportional amounts of funding are going to private-school students.

Chancellor Brady Deaton, who spoke in favor of the bill, said 29 percent of students attending private colleges are given 52 percent of the Access Missouri funding. Additionally, Missouri ranks No. 30 in public higher education funding per student and No. 4 in needs-based private-school aid.

"We think students at public universities are just as deserving," Deaton said. "It's a matter of fairness."

Last week, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education voted against the legislation, and Commissioner Robert Stein said during the hearing the vote is in part over concerns of the timing.

Access Missouri sunsets in 2013, which means it will be replaced, revised or canceled. As proposed, Schaefer's bill wouldn't take effect until 2014 to keep students' grant amounts at the same levels until they graduate.

The committee did not vote on the bill and did not yet schedule it for another hearing.

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