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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — When Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spearheaded the formation of a state-sanctioned online university, he envisioned that its students would eligible for the same state financial aid as those at traditional public universities.
Nearly two years later, that has yet to happen, and a proposed rule change that would make state scholarships available to students at the online Western Governors University-Missouri is facing opposition from some other colleges and universities.
A legislative committee is to meet Wednesday to determine whether it will attempt to block the scholarship change.
Opponents have both a technical and practical argument.
The Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri, a collection of 21 private institutions, contends that any scholarship change should require the passage of a law, not merely a rule from an agency. Some higher education institutions also fear that a scholarship expansion could ultimately result in less aid for their students as the state's resources are spread thinner.
Missouri's scholarships already "are woefully underfunded," said Bill Gamble, a lobbyist who is executive director of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Missouri. Making more people eligible could "lower that amount of the pot per student," he said.
Gamble said his group doesn't have anything against Western Governors University but is concerned that the proposed rule could be used by other out-of-state institutions seeking to tap into Missouri's scholarship money for students taking courses online or at branch campuses.
The Access Missouri program, which is the state's main financial-need-based scholarship, hasn't been fully funded for several years. About 51,000 students are expected to receive grants this year, but those at public universities and private institutions are getting the minimum allowed under state law — $1,500 — instead of the maximum $2,850.
Students at Western Governors University-Missouri are not currently eligible, because the online institution is not considered to be located in Missouri. The headquarters for the Western Governors University system is in Salt Lake City.
The state Department of Higher Education is proposing to redefine "located in Missouri" to accommodate the nonprofit online university that was established under a February 2013 executive order by Nixon. An accredited institution whose main campus is elsewhere would be covered by the new definition if it has a building in Missouri, employs at least 25 Missouri residents, enrolls at least 750 Missouri students, has a Missouri-based oversight board and agrees to supply data to state officials.
Western Governors University-Missouri meets all those criteria, said Chancellor Angie Besendorfer. It has a facility in Clayton, employs 83 Missouri residents and has more than 1,300 Missouri students, she said.
Those students already can receive federal financial aid. If they could get state scholarships — as WGU students already can do in Indiana, Tennessee and Washington — then they could reduce their federally backed loans, Besendorfer said. That could greatly ease the financial pressures on a 36-year-old parent who is representative of the school's typical student, she said.
The Council on Public Higher Education in Missouri, composed of the state's 13 public universities, has taken no official position on the proposed rule change. Executive Director Paul Wagner said the group isn't opposed to WGU-Missouri students getting state scholarships, but is concerned "that there might be lots of other similarly situated institutions out there who would want to come and take advantage of it."
The Legislature's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules is to hear testimony Wednesday about the scholarship rule change. The panel has the power to temporarily a block rule, but a permanent rejection can occur only if a resolution is passed by the full Legislature and enacted by the governor.
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