Missouri Weighs Scholarship for Western Governors University

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Higher education officials in Missouri are withdrawing their attempt to offer scholarships to students at an online university after drawing criticism from some traditional institutions.

A joint House and Senate panel scheduled for this week would have looked into blocking a suggested rule change for scholarship eligibility that would reconsider the term “located in Missouri” for institutions in the state.  The idea was to offer Access Missouri scholarships to students who attend Western Governors University-Missouri, an online school.

However, that hearing was cancelled earlier this week after the rule change was withdrawn by the Department of Education.  According to a memo released by the department to the legislative committee, the department had wanted to “provide additional time to discuss the issues further with interested parties.”

Governor Jay Nixon had asked the agency to find a way for WGU-Missouri students to receive state financial aid after he signed an executive order in February 2013 allowing for the Missouri branch of the online school, which is based in Salt Lake City, to open.

The rule change saw opposition from the Independent Colleges and University of Missouri, a group of 21 private universities in the state.  The group believes that any changes to state scholarships should be accompanied by a change in the law, not merely a rule by a state agency.  The group also discussed fears that other out-of-state institutions would make use of the scholarship, which would broaden the applicant pool and result in less aid available for each student.

“We’ve decided that rather than go forward with this — if there are these level of questions — we’re better to take the time to talk to them and see what kind of compromise position we can meet,” the agency’s deputy commissioner, Leroy Wade, said in an interview Tuesday.

If the department wants to consider the rule change again, it will have to start from square one, which can take six months or more.

“We’re still optimistic that there will come a point where we’re able to have our students access those funds — it’s just a matter of time,” said Angie Besendorfer, the chancellor at WGU-Missouri.

Currently, students who attend WGU-Missouri cannot apply for state financial aid, because the school is not considered to be located in Missouri.  The rule change would allow an accredited university with its main campus located elsewhere to qualify for state aid so long as it has a building in Missouri, employed by at least 25 Missouri residents, attended by at least 750 Missouri students, with a Missouri-based oversight board and they agree to offer data to state officials.

All of those criteria would have been met by WGU-Missouri.

Other students in the state who participate in the A+ scholarship program may see a drop in the amount they receive as a spending shortfall may result in less funding available for the program.  It is unknown exactly how much less money will be available, but it is estimated that students may have to pay out of pocket for one to three credit hours.