Here’s a question for Missouri lawmakers to ponder until their next legislative session begins in January:

Why should high school students in Georgia and Tennessee have more HOPE that they will be able to attend a state college than students right here in the Show-Me State?

Those two Southern states, new Southeastern Conference (SEC) rivals for the Tigers in all things athletic, have something Missouri doesn’t have: an in-state scholarship program (called HOPE) offering up to $6,000 for students with good grades who want to go to a state university.

In fact, eight of the 13 other SEC schools have significantly more generous scholarship programs for their states’ residents than does Missouri. The Tigers appear to bring up the league-wide rear in that department.

The revelation came in a story by the Columbia Tribune’s Ross Dellenger last Sunday examining why the Tigers might struggle to compete against SEC brethren in the nonrevenue sports like golf, wrestling, track, baseball and softball. The reason is that legislatures in most of the states that make up the SEC have made it a priority to help students obtain a higher education.

Such scholarships help coaches cobble together aid to attract athletes in the nonrevenue sports. But the story has implications far beyond sports.

As state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, told Mr. Dellenger, the disparity is “another indication of the state of Missouri’s unwillingness to meet its obligation to fund higher education.”

Missouri’s two main academic-based scholarship programs for higher education are Bright Flight and the A+ program. Both are good, but both are also significantly limited and underfunded. Bright Flight gives about $2,000 to the top 3 percent of Missouri students who also have qualifying ACT scores. The A+ program provides a full two years of tuition to a community college for students who complete the program. They must keep their grades up and perform public service in high school.

The programs don’t measure up financially to those available in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi (home to two SEC programs) and Florida.

Yes, those states are sports rivals. But they’re also economic rivals; when companies look for educated in the future, they’ll have a leg up on Missouri.

But that’s not the only place where Missouri falls short. No matter how you define support for higher education, Missouri’s is among the lowest in the nation, according to the State Higher Education Officers Association yearly reports.

Missouri’s per capita funding (the amount of taxpayer support based on population), is $190 per person, lower than all but Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

If you adjust for personal income, taking into account the low Midwestern cost of living, Missouri does even worse, ranking better than only five states.

As a percentage of its state budget, Missouri is spending less on higher education than it did a decade ago.

What this means is that students and their parents must bear more of the cost of a college education. It also means that other states are targeting Missouri students, and not just athletes. That’s hurting efforts to keep the best and brightest at home.

When student loan interest rates doubled this week because of congressional inaction, it was students in states that aren’t funding higher education who got hit the worst.

That means Missouri students are struggling today more than they already were, and they are doing proportionately worse than their colleagues in other SEC states.

The sports context is an appropriate one to discuss higher education funding. If you’ve ever been in the Missouri Capitol on a day when coaches or athletes from the University of Missouri visit, you know that lawmakers fawn over them like a free meal from a lobbyist.

You want bipartisanship? Check the Missouri Ethics Commission records and see which lawmakers are accepting tickets to free Tigers’ basketball and football games, while simultaneously standing in the way of proper funding for the schools.

For years, Missouri has been near the bottom of the barrel in terms of funding higher education. Lawmakers have made no serious attempts to fix the problem. This applies to all state college and universities, but maybe explaining it in terms of Mizzou athletics will help lawmakers understand.

The schools of the SEC are all showing a greater commitment to in-state students than Missouri is. The Tigers are in the SEC cellar.

Is that where the Missouri Legislature wants them to be?

Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.