One Missouri representative is speaking out against the state’s scholarship system, alleging it is inequitable and does not adequately serve the students who need the financial help the most.
While the Missouri government gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars in merit-based scholarship money to help students attend college each year, State Rep. Kevin Windham, D-85th District, believes those numbers obscure a bigger story.
Windham recently praised a report from the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis League of Student Advocates, a nonprofit group that provides scholarship distribution and counseling services. The report found that Black, rural and disabled students are receiving disproportionately small amounts of state-distributed scholarship aid as compared to the rest of Missouri’s student population.
For instance, while 12% of Missouri students are Black, only 3% of A+ Missouri merit scholarship awardees are, according to the report. And the median family income of A+ awardees was, according to the report, over $90,000 for the 2019-2020 school year.
That’s significantly higher than the statewide median of $55,000. This disparity was even more stark within the Bright Flight merit scholarship program: only 1% of awardees were Black, and the median family income of awardees was over $100,000.
Access Missouri grants, distributed on a need-based basis by the state, more accurately reflected the demographics of Missouri.
Ultimately, the League of Student Advocates report calls for eliminating Missouri’s four separate state-level scholarship programs entirely, and starting over with one single need-based program.
The is personal for Windham, because he is still paying off student loans after not receiving enough aid to put himself through college.
He supports the conclusions that the League of Student Advocates have drawn, that most aid in Missouri should be going towards need-based rather than merit-based scholarships, as current scholarship requirements are inaccessible to many students and aid money is not going where it’s most needed.
Aja McCoy, law student and researcher with the League of Student Advocates of the Scholarship Foundation of Greater St. Louis, said eligibility requirements for merit-based programs like A+ Missouri are often impossible to meet — particularly for students who may have to work to support their families or come from districts with less capacity to prepare students to meet the requirements.
“The A+ program … requires you to have a 95% attendance rate, 50 hours of community service, and you also have to be either advanced or proficient on the state math test,” she said. “So what we’re finding is a lot of brown and Black students aren’t able to complete the 50 hour community service, because a lot of them have to look after siblings or work jobs to help with the family, stuff like that.”
School counselors at both Parkway School District and St. Louis Public Schools say that they are doing their best to help students meet these requirements, but often run into obstacles in doing so.
Nana Prange, counselor with Parkway School District, said that while districts can appeal some requirements of the A+ scholarship — the 95% attendance requirement, for example — other requirements are fixed at the state level, such as the GPA minimum and the fact that any student involved with the criminal justice system is automatically disqualified from the program.
The factor she sees getting in students’ way most frequently is when their GPAs don’t meet that 2.5 minimum mark.
“It’s just up to them to maintain the requirements. It’s like all scholarships — it doesn’t happen automatically, you have to earn that minimum GPA and maintain good attendance and stuff like that,” Prange said.
In St. Louis Public Schools, according to College and Career Readiness Curriculum and Events Facilitator Khadija Tejan, the testing and GPA requirements hold students back from scholarship money, too.
“It starts off great, right? You come to school, get good grades, make sure you give back to others in terms of service,” she said. “Those are the components. And what shuts the door are those other pieces, namely, the testing requirements. Those start to filter people out. But all of our students know that if they work hard, they do the work, they have this opportunity.”
Another reason these merit-based scholarships often end up out of the reach of less economically privileged students is because they are “last dollar scholarships” — meaning they only apply if students don’t already have other scholarships on offer such as Pell Grants.
Tejan, along with McKinley High School College admissions specialist Kurly Taylor, said that while moving to a more need-based system may help some students, the real problem is in fact the rising cost of tuition, while the total amount of scholarship money available simply isn’t keeping up.
Over the past two decades, according to the College Board, the price index for tuition and fees to attend college has increased 172%. In the 2020-2021 academic year, the average list price of a public four-year college was $27,020; the average list price of a private equivalent institution was $37,650.
“I think changing to need-based is a quick fix, but I think it’s a much larger problem at stake here,” Taylor said.
“As tuition is increasingly going up, aid is not meeting the inflation. So, despite putting in more funds, or making it need-based, there’s still going to be that insurmountable gap for students if these things continue to persist. In the grand scheme of things we’re going to need a complete overhaul of the system, complete reform of the antiquated system.”
As the four state scholarship programs stand now, 13,575 students received A+ Missouri scholarships during the 2019-2020 school year, and 7,784 students received Bright Flight awards in the same time period. One-hundred-eighty-nine students received workforce development-oriented awards from the smaller Fast Track Missouri program.
More than 43,600 students received awards of varying sizes from Access Missouri, the state’s main need-based scholarship program. Access Missouri grants are capped at $3,000 per year for four-year college students, and less for two-year students. A+ Missouri and Bright Flight awards, which go to students that have completed a certain set of GPA and behavioral requirements, are generally larger awards.