BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–The presidents of Alabama’s three Baptist schools want to be included in legislation that accompanies Gov. Bob Riley’s tax package. And the governor has promised to make that happen.
In an effort at “cost containment,” Riley left private colleges out of the scholarship program part of his tax plan, according to Dalton Smith, senior adviser and counselor to Riley. But the exclusion was not intended to be permanent, Smith said.
The college scholarship program is a merit-based plan that would provide college tuition for students who achieve academic excellence. Requirements for eligibility would include a 3.0 grade point average, an ACT score of 20 or higher and completion of 18.5 core units.
“We were looking at starting off with the public universities,” Smith said. “We were open to what would be next. The governor appreciates the important role of private schools. It was definitely not an attempt to exclude anybody.”
But the exclusion could hurt private colleges across the state, including Judson College, Samford University and the University of Mobile.
“It could dramatically affect enrollment,” Thomas E. Corts, president of Samford in Birmingham, told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal. “The caliber of student we want tends to be the student who will qualify for the state grant (outlined in the tax plan). If that student can go free to a state university or pay his or her own way (to go to a private school), then it is a hard competition for us. It is already difficult. This only widens the gap.”
Ginny Bugg, president of the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, agreed that the exclusion would be “extremely harmful.”
“The scholarship program would be going into effect after several years of real economic decline in which private colleges have seen their endowments lose a great deal of value,” said Bugg, a member of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in the Birmingham Baptist Association.
While Bugg believes private colleges would eventually be added to the program, she is concerned about the interim period.
“How much damage happens before they do that?” she asked, pointing to statistics from other states. “Private colleges have been submitted in all scholarship programs in the surrounding states,” she said, noting the private schools were added in the other states after officials realized the damage taking place.
When Georgia initiated the Hope Scholarship from its lottery funds, private schools actually were included but at a marginal rate, Bugg said. Within one year Shorter College — a private Baptist school in Rome, Ga. — lost about one-third of its in-state enrollment.
Bugg estimates $10 to $12 million per year will be needed for private colleges to fully participate in the scholarship program.
David Potts, president of Judson College in Marion, Ala., said enrollment at one of Georgia’s private women’s colleges declined about 25 percent during a two-year period.
“Thankfully the people in Georgia realized they were about to redistribute the student population in their state and place an enormous burden on the state college system,” Potts said.
“There is a public purpose served by Alabama residents being able to get education in a private college,” he explained. “We serve a public purpose by virtue of the educational quality that is granted to a citizen of this state. It also saves the taxpayers the allocation that is made for every individual attending a public school.”
Corts agreed, noting, “It is good business for the state.”
Because the state invests an average of $4,000 to $6,000 per student at state universities, Corts said private institutions are a good investment for the state government because the private institutions support themselves. If private institutions did not exist, the state would have to build and run more universities.
Mark Foley, president of the University of Mobile, added that “Alabama citizens who have paid their taxes but choose an independent college should participate in the scholarship program. It is a matter of rightness and fairness that a large segment of Alabama’s population was apparently designed out of the portion of this tax measure.”
Corts said families who pay taxes are helping subsidize students attending public schools. If those same families send their children to a private college, they are not receiving the subsidized money.
“The fundamental fairness says we ought to help families that are paying for private education,” he said.
Once these concerns were shared with Riley, he pledged to support legislation calling for private schools to be added to the scholarship program.
“We’ve had conferences with the governor and chief policy adviser Dalton Smith,” Corts said. “Both said [adding private colleges to the scholarship program] is fair and sounds reasonable. The governor said he is willing to include the private colleges and will [submit it during a special session] this fall.
“We have to trust the governor,” Corts said. “Personally I do support the governor’s plan even though I am disappointed the private schools were left out of the scholarship program.”
Foley, who received a personal letter from the governor pledging his “intention to address the issue of private colleges and universities,” said there is no clear indication of how a vote in the state legislature will go.
Bugg noted that state Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D.-Birmingham, proposed an amendment on the original bill that would have included the private colleges. That amendment failed by one vote.
But state Sen. Wendell Mitchell, D.-Luverne, believes the attempt to add the private colleges will pass “if the governor actively comes out in support of it.”
Mitchell will sponsor the legislation for the private colleges, which will be submitted during a special session following the Sept. 9 referendum “provided the tax measure passes.”
“It is a moot point if the tax measure fails Sept. 9,” Mitchell said. But he plans to draft the bill and have it ready just in case.
Mitchell, who serves as dean of the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University in Montgomery, said he will be meeting with the presidents of the private colleges as well as Bugg Aug. 13 in Montgomery to determine the exact wording of the bill.
Smith, who will be working with the legislation from the governor’s office, said, “We will show how this has affected other states and how they have come to recognize the need to allow private schools to participate in the scholarship program.”
Jennifer Davis Rash is managing editor of The Alabama Baptist.