Nodler higher education bill on fast track

Sen. Gary Nodler

Sen. Gary Nodler

Parker Willis

Sen. Gary Nodler (R-Joplin) wants to change higher education in Missouri and he wants to do it quickly.

College presidents from around the state came to Nodler’s side as he presented his omnibus higher education bill to the Senate education committee Wednesday. Nodler, chairman of the education committee, moved to the other side of the table to present SB 389. He was joined by witnesses from the state’s institutions of higher learning to plead the bill’s case.

Dr. Barbara Dixon, president of Truman State University, described the bill as “the most far-reaching higher education bill that has been proposed in a long time.”

She agreed with several aspects of the bill, including the Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative.

“State-of-the-art, up-to-date buildings are essential to students getting a higher education,” Dixon said.

She was talking about the $350 million that will be transferred from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA) to the Missouri Development Finance Board for capital improvements on 22 college campuses.

However, not all the senators on the education committee were as excited about the initiative as Dixon is. Assistant Minority Floor Leader Chuck Graham (D-Columbia) was concerned about a portion of the bill that had to do with stem cell research. He did not agree with limiting stem cell research from college campuses.

And when Dr. Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri, told the committee that his school was ready to comply with the restrictions of the bill, Graham showed concern. Columbia is in his district and Graham said he had recently talked with a professor thinking of transferring to the University of Missouri, and the professor said he was hesitant because Missouri is a state that is not research-friendly.

Graham said these restrictions might “turn away some of the best and brightest.”

Some committee members were concerned about some of the language included in Nodler’s bill. In one section, the bill states that it would not allow students who have been proven guilty of a felony to receive financial aid.

“How can we expect to turn their life around when we include provisions like this?” said Minority Floor Leader Maida Coleman (D-St. Louis).

She said many people in jail can receive a college education and asked why lawmakers would limit the abilities of people outside of prison from receiving a college education.

Nodler responded by saying he intends to change the language to say this will only apply to renewals, so taxpayers aren’t paying to educate students who continue to commit crimes while in jail. This did not satisfy Coleman.

So Sen. Scott Rupp (R-St. Charles) suggested the bill could limit this to felony drug charges, similar to FAFSA.

Despite several language changes that have yet to be made, Nodler still hopes to have his bill reach the floor by next week, and then the desk of the governor by spring break.

After which the emergency clause will take over and put the bill into effect immediately.

“If we can get some long overdue capital improvements made on campuses so we that we’re building buildings for educational research that are suitable for the 21st Century,” Nodler said. “If we create stabilization in tuition so that there’s some ability to have confidence that tuition is not going to rise dramatically above the rate of inflation midway through your education.

“All of those things should benefit students.”