Federal Pressures Mount for Private Universities

New government requirements are standardizing independent schools who rely on financial aid for their students.
By Bryanna Hampton

MANHATTAN – Private higher education institutions will face new government regulations, which critics say are intrusive and threaten the independence of private and religious colleges.

The U.S. Department of Education will enforce new rules from the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which define a credit hour for all schools and require institutions to publicize tuition costs and the lump sum of all fees. The rules take effect July 1 for higher education institutions nationwide.

The federal government’s new regulations will take effect July 1. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

Accredited private institutions have been eligible for federal funding, but some administrations fear the new regulations imposed by the federal government will change the institution’s original intent.

“We have a different mission from state schools,” said R. Alton Lacey, president of Missouri Baptist University (MBU) in St. Louis, Mo. “Our funding comes from tuition and donors as opposed to the state, we have a distinctive Christian mission, and we are governed by an independent Board of Trustees.”

While MBU operation funding is not supplied by the state of Missouri, the school’s accreditation in its different degree programs has paved the way for enrolled and prospective students to receive federal financial aid since 1997.

But in 2010, Mo. Gov. Jeremiah “Jay” Nixon cut $50 million from the Access Missouri tuition assistance program. The program is the state’s primary needs-based fund for college students and applies to students wishing to attend any accredited higher education institution in the state.

Nixon’s proposed cuts would eliminate financial aid for students attending independent institutions, making it less affordable to attend. Despite rising enrollment at MBU, Lacey saw the potential for continued federal budget cuts impeding the students.

“The maximum amounts available to students under the Missouri Access program will decrease about 30 percent for public university

Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, Mo., has been trying to fight state budget cuts for financial aid. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

students and about 50 percent for those attending an independent university,” said Lacey.

On average private colleges and universities tuition costs rose 24 percent on average between the 1998-99 fiscal year and 2008-09,

based on a study from the Department of Education. State institutions’ tuition cost leapt 32 percent during the same amount of time, but remained 40 percent cheaper: a difference of tuition $12,283 per year at a public school and $31,233 at a private institution.

With costs continuing to rise, current and prospective students are finding it more difficult to afford the price of higher education. Lacey says he sees the government’s attempt to regulate each state’s available financial aid as making it even harder and limiting options for low-income families.

Administration at MBU organized a letter-writing rally in March, 2010. Students, parents, faculty and staff called and wrote letters to the state government to pronounce concerns.

More than a year later, the effects of the once welcomed federal regulations are still being dealt with.

“Cuts hurt low-income students by reducing the amount of aid available to them to attend a college or university of their choice, be it public or private,” said Lacey in a recent statement. “In Missouri the emphasis has been on growing community colleges which has had the effect of keeping our first-time freshmen enrollment relatively flat. Going forward, the loss of Missouri Access grant funds may cause a decline in first-time students.”

The Missouri State government proposed 50 percent of federal aid be cut from students attending independent universities. Photo by Bryanna Hampton

MBU isn’t the only independent university struggling with the effects of federalization. Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., is required to meet the same standards of public and private schools in the Southern region of the U.S.

Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, Covenant College has felt the strain in the accrediting process and annual reports to the federal government.

“The amount of reporting an institution has to do now has increased quite a bit,” said Jim Drexler, education department chair at Covenant. “There’s a higher level of federalization in that you have to report more and there’s more compliance. It does require more man hours to keep up with it all.

In it all, Drexler sees a positive. “But the whole accrediting process can be a healthy one, too,” he added. “It holds our feet to the fire…and we get it done.”

For more information, visit:
National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)
Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)

Reporter Bryanna Hampton may be reached at bryannahampton@gmail.com.

Lindsay Burkholder contributed to this report.

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