Friday, April 2, 2010

All students deserve state support

From the Parkville Luminary

My nephew is like a lot of young people his age—hard working, ambitious, and strapped for cash. Like many of his peers, he is both working full time and attending college full time. Since his parents can’t help him financially, he is paying for his classes at Park University himself, although his salary isn’t enough to cover all of his expenses. My nephew depends on Missouri Access needs-based grants to help him get by.

If Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and some legislators have their way, my nephew and 452 of his Park University classmates may be out of luck next year. Gov. Jay Nixon has proposed cutting $50 million in state funding to private university students throughout Missouri by completely eliminating the need-based Access Missouri and merit-based Bright Flight scholarships for private school students. There are 15,550 students at private universities benefiting from Missouri Access/Bright Flight this year, according to the Keep Me in College Coalition. Aside from Park, other smaller universities and their students will suffer, like the 437 Missouri Baptist University students who receive Access Missouri/Bright Flight funds. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 3-24-10). The reason for the bill is to help close the state’s anticipated $500-million budget gap next year.

This short-sighted proposal must be stopped dead in its tracks.

First, eliminating funding denies private university students the option of choosing the university that best fits their needs. MU-Columbia and UMKC are fine colleges, but they’re not for everyone. Since 1875, students have chosen more intimate universities like Park because of the smaller class sizes and faculty committed first and foremost to teaching.

In an open letter to the Park community, Park University President Dr. Michael Droge expressed his alarm at Nixon’s Missouri Access proposal. Dr. Droge wrote, “The suggested redistribution of these much needed scholarship funds may force students to public institutions, which do not always offer the academic programs or student services available in private colleges and universities.”

There is a fundamental issue of fairness at play. Families of private college students pay taxes too, and have a right to see at least some of their tax money wisely used to support higher education grants for their students. “Shrinking financial aid resources have made it a challenge for all Missouri students; therefore, eliminating these tax-funded programs for students whose families have paid taxes is wrong. Parents pay state taxes in part to ensure that their children’s education, including higher learning options, is secure. Private colleges and universities serve thousands of Missouri’s need-based students each year, without receiving the significant state funding public universities do,” penned Dr. Droge.

In making this recommendation, Nixon is rejecting the recommendation of the Access Missouri Work Group. This group, consisting of 10 private and public higher education institution presidents, came together to reach consensus on the distribution of financial aid in Missouri. This group wrote, "The state should continue to provide need-based financial aid to eligible students attending public two-year, public four-year and independent [private] institutions in Missouri through a program that is easily understood, predictable and portable."

Though the proposal to completely cut aid is clearly misdirected, one possible solution might be to equalize the grant amounts available to both private and public university students. Currently, Access Missouri awards a maximum of $4,600 a year to private university students and up to $2,150 for students at state schools. Although it wouldn’t be desirable, at least retaining private university grant funding up to the state level of $2,150 would be much better than nothing, particularly for students at Park, where the tuition is comparable to that at state schools.

Nixon’s proposal was winding its way through the legislature at presstime. If the bill is still “in play”, and if you are concerned about Park University and its low income students, contact Gov. Nixon (573-751-3222, e-mail- ) and voice your objections. My nephew, and hundreds of others like him, appreciate your efforts.

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