Fitzpatrick bill aims to disallow A+ scholarships for illegal immigrants

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

State proposes rule change to assist students covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, has sponsored a bill that would block the Missouri Department of Higher Education's plans to provide A+ scholarship benefits for illegal immigrants.

House Bill 187 would change the wording from lawfully present to lawful status within the A+ Scholarship Program statute, said Fitzpatrick, who pre-filed his bill on Dec. 9.

The statute says before students who attend designated A+ high schools receive scholarship assistance from the program, they must prove they are lawfully present in the U.S., and they have to display a good faith effort to secure funding through a Free Application for Federal Student Aid prior to A+ paying out.

Fitzpatrick said he worked with DHE to get language for his bill. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients are being granted lawful presence instead of lawful status as a result of executive action by President Barack Obama to give benefits to illegal immigrants.

"As far as the letter of the law in Missouri, all the student has to do is provide documents from the federal government that they are lawfully present," Fitzpatrick said.

The U.S. Education Department, which oversees the FAFSA, does not give benefits to illegal immigrants, Fitzpatrick said. Under a new proposal, DHE has basically carved an exception for deferred action students by not requiring them to fill out the FAFSA.

DHE expects to conclude its rule-making process in the spring, said Liz Coleman, the department's director of communications and marketing. DHE filed the rule change with the Missouri Secretary of State in September, followed by a comment period that ended on Nov. 14. The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which comprises of five senators and five representatives, has to review the change. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 7, and it adjourns May 30.

"On Aug. 29, we informed community colleges that students who are eligible for the A+ Scholarship Program could potentially see a reduction in the number of credit hours reimbursed by the program," Coleman said. "We also provided a letter to the schools that they could send to students to inform them of the possibility. We wanted to inform students and families as early as possible to help them accurately plan for college expenses."

DHE determined that it may be necessary to reduce the A+ Scholarship by a maximum of four credit hours for the Spring 2015 semester, she said. For example, if students enroll in 14 credit hours, they would have to pay for four hours, and the scholarship program would pay for 10 hours.

"This reduction may be necessary because fully reimbursing tuition costs for all eligible students would total more than the funds available for distribution through the program," Coleman said. "This is due to more students qualifying for and using the program, increasing tuition costs and state budget restrictions."

In November, $2 million in A+ funding that had been restricted in June by Gov. Jay Nixon was released, she said.

"As a result, we now believe that A+ tuition reimbursement will be reduced by 1--2 credit hours," Coleman said.

This reduction in tuition reimbursement would be for the Spring 2015 semester, she said. Future funding will depend on state budget appropriations for the program.

"The Department of Higher Education projects that 14,000 students will receive the A+ Scholarship during the 2014--2015 academic year," Coleman said. "Last year, about 12,500 students received A+ Scholarship funds.

Funding for the program this year is $33.1 million. Last year, it was $30.4 million.

"A+ students who have questions about their obligations should contact their institutions' financial aid advisers to determine their exact situation," said David Russell, Missouri commissioner of higher education, in a Dec. 22 release.

State legislation created the A+ Program in 1993. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education then started administering the program. Scholarships were initially awarded in the 1996--1997 academic year after students attended A+ designated high schools for three consecutive years. On Aug. 28, 2010, DHE began administering the A+ scholarship component.

"We provide reimbursement to colleges for the students who apply for the A+ Program," she said.

Missouri has 533 A+ designated high schools, which include Cassville, Exeter, Monett, Purdy, Southwest and Wheaton high schools, according to DESE.

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