Higher education legislation filed in the Missouri General Assembly this year is largely focused on social issues and college affordability.
The 2023 legislative session began Wednesday. New lawmakers representing districts around the state traveled to Jefferson City to be sworn-in and new leaders were officially elected in the Missouri House and Senate. Action on legislation is expected to begin this week.
Lawmakers in the Missouri House and Senate have filed more than 28 bills affecting higher education in some fashion. Eleven bills are aimed at expanding or modifying scholarship and loan programs while the rest seek to tackle issues like prohibiting vaccine mandates and the participation of transgender athletes in school sports.
Natalie Sanders, communications director for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, said the department's priorities this session revolve around modernizing state workforce networks, maintaining student grant and scholarship award levels, and supporting funding opportunities at colleges and universities.
"MDHEWD administers 10 student financial assistance programs," Sanders wrote to the News Tribune in an email. "In total, those programs serve more than 64,800 students and disburse more than $134 million in assistance to support their education and training."
Sanders said the state's Access Missouri, Bright Flight and A+ Scholarship programs were fully funded for the first time last session, and the department is advocating for those funding levels to remain.
It's also asking lawmakers to continue last year's funding for the Dual Credit/Dual Enrollment program and the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant aimed at adult learners returning to the classroom or getting an apprenticeship.
"MDHEWD is looking forward to the opportunity to work with the General Assembly during the legislative session as we focus on higher education and workforce development priorities for 2023," she continued.
Behind conservative social issues, college affordability is the second largest theme among higher education legislation filed in the General Assembly this year, with many also looking to address workforce shortages.
Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, wants to add a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Grant program for students awarded the Access Missouri grant with HB 515. Other lawmakers are set on expanding the number of institutions students can attend on the A+ scholarship and allowing students with a MOST 529 account to use up to $10,000 on student loans.
SB 107, sponsored by Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, expands the Advantage Missouri Program to provide student loans and a loan forgiveness program for students studying to become teachers in high-need public or charter schools. Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, is carrying similar legislation in the House to transform the Urban Flight and Rural Needs Scholarship Program.
The proposals are a short-term recommendation the Missouri Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission announced in September. The commission also recommended teacher pay raises. Arthur, a member of the commission, said it's "low-hanging fruit" for the state to remain competitive with its neighbors.
Legislators in the House have also filed legislation to expand the state's large animal veterinary student loan program and health professional student loan repayment program.
More legislation is focused on what college life looks like in Missouri than how students get there, however.
Three members of the House and three state senators have filed standalone bills that would prevent transgender athletes who were born male from competing on college teams made up of the gender they identify with. The measures would also apply to the high school and elementary school levels.
The bills are SB 2, SB 48, SB 165, HB 170, HB 183 and HB 337.
Several iterations of the legislation would withhold state funding to colleges and universities that don't comply.
Republicans have pointed to Gov. Mike Parson voicing support for the legislation after it didn't pass last year as a reason for the renewed push. In talking to reporters about how long the Senate took work through congressional redistricting, the governor said lawmakers left a transgender athlete ban, critical race theory legislation and parental oversight on education on the table. "I think those are some things we should have got done," Parson said in May.
Four bills -- three in the Senate and one in the House -- would prevent public colleges and universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, which would also apply to the elementary and high school levels.
Those bills are SB 159, SB 201, SB 232 and HB 205.
Additional legislation focused on social issues would tax the endowment of colleges and universities in any way affiliated with abortion providers (SB 290, Sen. Mike Moon); prevent medical schools from incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion in employee training or student instruction (SB 410, Sen. Andrew Koenig); prevent mandatory gender or sexual diversity training to college students (HB 75, Rep. Ann Kelley); and prevent discrimination relating to hair texture and protective styles, such as braids, locks, twists and afros (SB 424, Sen. Barbara Washington).
Rep. Travis Smith, R-Twin Bridges, is sponsoring HB 240 to prevent anyone who helps a hazing victim, by calling 911 for example, from being charged with a crime. And Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, is carrying SB 440 to codify rights and protections for student media.