Access Missouri Debate Is Silly
Missouri lawmakers, via Senate Bill 784 and House Bill 1812, have proposed to reform the Access Missouri program. Currently, the program awards need-based grants to Missouri students. Students attending private colleges may receive up to $4,600 of aid, and students attending public schools may receive up to $2,150. Under the reform bills, these amounts would be equalized to $2,850 for all students. The bills perplex me; is the brand of reform they endorse really necessary?
Proponents of reform have made three, general arguments, all of them dubious:
First, they assert that reform would make the distribution of public aid more equitable. It’s atrocious that private school students may receive more than $2,000 in additional funding than their public school counterparts. This is tantamount to pandering to special interests. This argument is very puzzling; do its exponents not remember that the award amounts were carefully derived from two years of collaboration among private and public representatives and financial aid experts in order to meet “just” and “equitable” standards? Do they not understand that public aid is already lavished upon public school students and that the Access Missouri grants constitute the only form of public aid available for low-income students attending private colleges? Would not equalization of AM grants then be tantamount to pandering to public college students at the expense of their deserving private school counterparts? Are taxpaying Missouri citizens choosing to attend private colleges less deserving of the taxpayer dime than those attending public colleges?
Second, they argue that private school students should not receive a higher subsidy because they chose a more expensive education. It is an inefficient use of government funds to confer grants to students who are simply “paying too much” for education that they could receive at a public institution at a much lower cost. Here, too, problems abound. First, this claim once again ignores the state appropriations already going toward public institutions and the students who matriculate there. Second, the claim assumes that private and public schools have homogeneous curricula that can easily be compared. The reality is more complicated. Private colleges offer unique course and degree possibilities, with unique levels of quality and market value relative to public schools. In that light, the value of education at a private college is private and subjective. Even if we were to assume that private and public colleges are perfect substitutes, it is unclear why Missouri should, other things being equal, choose to subsidize one group of students at the expense of another group.
Third, proponents suggest that reform would open access to more students. Some legislators have argued that equalizing the award amounts would result in an increase in the total matriculation of Missouri students. Given a dearth of quality data on the impact of Access Missouri, this claim is utterly unsubstantiated; without appropriate data, I find it very difficult to accept prima facie. To begin, the reform package reduces the maximum amount of private aid by $1,750 and increases the maximum amount of public aid by $750. All else equal, it is reasonable to assume that students would be less motivated to attend private colleges, but not significantly more motivated to attend public universities. Of course, all else would not be equal, and the sum effect of reform is difficult to project. What can be said is that the claim that access would increase as a result of the reform is premature.
The Post-Dispatch doesn’t seem to like the reform package, and instead suggests that schools compete for funds. As per this view, students would receive aid relative to the “effectiveness” of the institution they attend. It is an interesting idea, primarily because it would involve the development of outcome measures that higher education currently lacks.
I have a better idea, one on which I have previously written: Support students through higher education vouchers, and then use Access Missouri for the rest.