House speaker suggests using federal money to cover tuition

LARAMIE — The Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives has sponsored draft legislation that would provide $116 million to cover most of the costs of college tuition in the state. Existing federal stimulus funds would pay for the program.

Each student at the University of Wyoming who is a U.S. citizen would receive $6,500 in aid for tuition and fees under the plan sponsored by House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper. Community college students with American citizenship would have the total cost of tuition and fees paid under the program.

It comes as the University of Wyoming has predicted up to a 20% fall in enrollment this fall, largely due to the economic recession associated with the coronavirus pandemic. When contacted, many students said they could no longer afford college, university officials have said in recent weeks.

The total cost of a year’s attendance at the University of Wyoming is a little bit less than $17,000 for Wyoming residents, according to UW’s website. Before room and board, costs are $6,362, or less than the grant proposed in Harshman’s bill.

Gov. Mark Gordon said he had discussed the possibility of grants for students with Ed Seidel, UW’s president.

“We certainly can meet some of the needs for current tuition, so we’re very anxious to get that done,” Gordon said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get that done fairly soon.”

The University of Wyoming told the Boomerang that it would welcome the assistance for its students.

”The university is pleased with the prospect of CARES Act funding being allocated to help Wyoming students continue their education amid significant financial hardship,” said Chad Baldwin, a spokesperson for the university.

All of the grants would be paid for with money that the state received from the federal CARES Act or some future federal stimulus related to the coronavirus, the draft bill says. Under the draft bill, $50 million would be appropriated to pay for community college tuition, and $66 million would be appropriated for the grants to UW students.

This is even more than UW’s original request for student aid funding from the CARES Act stimulus. It had originally requested $20 million in financial aid for students whose families had been particularly affected by the recession, according to previous reporting in the Boomerang.

But that money was cut, and student aid was not included in the $26.5 million that the university has already received in CARES Act funding. The CARES Act was a sweeping federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic decline, which Congress passed in March.

Wyoming received $1.25 billion to cover direct costs that the state, local governments and businesses incurred in fighting the pandemic. More than $300 million has already been distributed by the state government, Gordon said on Tuesday.

Harshman is a chairman of the task force. Two Laramie lawmakers, Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss and House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, both Laramie Democrats, sit on the task force.

Rothfuss praised the draft bill Tuesday evening.

”It’s a great way to use the federal funds that we received,” he said. “It’s an investment in the future of the state.”

Harshman was not available for comment Tuesday evening.

The measure has not been formally introduced yet, but it will be discussed by the Wyoming’s Tomorrow Task Force at its meeting on Friday morning. The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m., and a livestream of the meeting is expected to be available from the Legislature’s website.