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Bright Flight scholarship loses some of its shimmer in Missouri

Bright Flight scholarship loses some of its shimmer in Missouri

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Thirty years after Missouri established a scholarship program designed to keep its brightest college students in-state, some say it’s a flawed approach that ends up hurting the state’s needier students.

About 6,000 Missouri students qualify for Bright Flight scholarships each year. The program has generally rewarded students who score in the top 3 percent on the ACT standardized test — generally a 31 out of a potential 36. The state average is 21.5.

In 2014, the state spent about $17 million on the program. It pays a maximum of about $3,000 per student, though awards have been smaller amid budget cuts.

That’s an inefficient use of state resources, argues the Active Advocacy Coalition, a statewide group of students working to improve access to education.

“State dollars are very scarce; we should be getting the most value out of them,” said Karissa Anderson, a policy analyst with the coalition. “We should use them where we can make the most impact.”

Anderson, along with other policy experts and about 30 volunteering college students, will be in Jefferson City on Wednesday to make their case to legislators.

Their basic pitch is that the state would get more value by directing Bright Flight dollars to low-income students rather than to the select, well-off students who typically receive the award.

The report shows that Bright Flight recipients are concentrated in mostly affluent metropolitan high schools. Nearly a third are from 20 Missouri high schools.

Additionally, the report says:

• Roughly one-third of Missouri’s 800 high schools currently have five or more Bright Flight recipients.

• Private school students make up 10 percent of the state’s high school students but account for 20 percent of Bright Flight awards.

• Almost 75 percent of recipients come from St. Louis and Kansas City, while only 11 percent live in rural areas.

Research shows that higher ACT scores correlate to higher family incomes. So the argument is that by basing Bright Flight solely on ACT scores, the state is directing money to students who already have the means to pay for college, rather than to the students who don’t.

And, typically, those higher-means students go to high schools with better resources to prepare students for college, Anderson said.

In other words, a Normandy High student with a 4.0 grade-point average may have a harder time getting a Bright Flight scholarship than a typical student at St. Louis University High School, which has a robust ACT-preparation program, she said.

It’s a familiar conundrum in higher education policy: What is the right balance between need-based aid and merit-based aid?

“What we know is that merit-based aid tends to affect which college students are going to,” said Will Doyle, a professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University. “When it comes to need-based aid, it affects whether a student goes to college or not.”

“If a state has limited funds and a real disparity in enrollment by income, the most efficient use is to put the money toward need-based aid,” he added.

An argument could be made that Missouri already does that.

The state spends about $60 million each year on roughly 51,000 students as part of the Access Missouri scholarship program for low-income students.

Those students are eligible for a maximum $2,850 a year from the state to attend public, four-year universities. But in truth, a lack of state funding means that recipients of both the Bright Flight and Access programs are receiving lower awards.

The coalition report argues that even more money — the $17 million from Bright Flight — should be dedicated to Access Missouri. Either that, or award the money only to students who have a financial need, distribute the scholarships equally to the top students at each high school or base the awards on broader criteria.

All of those options would make more of a difference to more students than the current system, the report says.

That argument is bolstered by Chris Lorenz, a counselor at Parkway West High School in Chesterfield, one of the top 20 schools in terms of Bright Flight recipients.

Lorenz said the maximum $3,000 students receive from Bright Flight isn’t enough to persuade the highest-achieving students to stay in state. Many of them are offered substantial scholarship packages from schools around the country.

“When you talk about a student getting a 31 on the ACT, these are high-fliers who typically have a lot of college options,” he said. “As they start hearing back from different colleges, Bright Flight is not enough of a financial incentive to stay.”

Even if a student decides to stay in-state, it’s typically because their school of choice has a good program in the subject area they’re interested in, and not because of Bright Flight, Lorenz said.

As students talk to legislators this week, part of their pitch is that increased need-based aid is good for the state long term.

“The state has a goal to raise the number of adults with a college degree to 60 percent by 2025. Right now we’re at 38 percent,” said Amber Overton, who co-wrote the report for the coalition. “The only way to move the needle is to direct the dollars toward the students who rely on it.”

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he thought it was important to have distinct and separate scholarship programs in the state. “I’d hate to cannibalize one scholarship program in favor of the other.”

Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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