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Greitens seeks funding bump for college scholarships while cutting higher ed budget

College and graduation illustration
Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Eric Greitens' proposed budget calls for $6.5 million more for Missouri's student financial aid programs, while cutting $68 million in direct funding to public colleges and universities.

Gov. Eric Greitens is proposing a $6.5 million increase to Missouri’s student financial aid programs, a modest boost amid his desire to cut $68 million in direct funds to the state’s public colleges and universities.

The state’s Department of Higher Education gave 64,500 students attending in-state schools about $128.5 million last year in the form of three grants: Access Missouri, a financial need-based grant; Bright Flight, a merit-based scholarship; and the A+ Scholarship, providing free community college to students completing 50 hours of community service in high school.

The governor’s budget asks for increases of $2 million for Access Missouri, $3.5 million for A+ and $1 million for Bright Flight.

“Gov. Greitens appreciates the value of affordable higher education that equips our citizens with quality degrees, certificates, and training,” the budget outline said.

The scholarships have been chronically underfunded and unable to keep pace with rising college tuition. For example, when Bright Flight was created 30 years ago, the scholarship covered half of the tuition at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The grant now covers a fifth of the cost of classes at Mizzou.

The state’s largest scholarship program, Access Missouri, is almost $40 million short of being able to give recipients the maximum possible grant. Last year, the state gave 44,000 students $1,676 each. The scholarship is worth up to $2,850.

“It’s by far got the largest number of students and struggles the most to meet statutory minimums,” said Faith Sandler, executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

The $2 million proposed increase is better than a cut, Sandler said, but it will still leave Access Missouri “dramatically underfunded.”

The small increase is enough to maintain current award levels as demand is expected to rise, according to Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Liz Coleman.

The Scholarship Foundation advocates state financial aid should be focused on financially needy students and not high academically achieving ones, who it argues are more likely to receive other scholarships from top colleges.

A+ expanded to private schools

State lawmakers expanded A+ eligibility to private high schools in 2016, which requires high schoolers to complete community service as well as maintain good grades and attendance in exchange for a free associate degree.

Six of the 22 high schools that are part of the Independent Schools of St. Louis consortium signed in the first year, according to executive director Jamie Driver. He said he expects that number to increase.

One high school that jumped at the chance to join A+ is St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, a Catholic institution in Washington, Missouri.

“We wanted to give every opportunity that was available to our students if one of our students wanted to pursue a community college education or technical college education,” said Kim Flores, a school counselor.

It was a scramble for seniors to complete the needed community service in a short time frame, Flores said, but 38 students out of a graduating class of 123 earned the scholarship.

She calls the perception that students attending a private school don’t need financial assistance to get an education a misnomer.

“Not all of our families are able to pay for college and this A+ scholarship really does aid those families a great deal,” she said.

Ryan Lowry, a senior at St. Francis Borgia, completed the community service to earn the A+ Scholarship by tutoring at his old grade school. He plans to use the scholarship to complete general studies at East Central College in Union before going on to become a pre-med student at either Truman State or Maryville University.

“I won’t have to take out a lot of loans,” he said. “A+ is helpful so I can knock out my gen education classes for free.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the last name of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis' executive director. Her name is Faith Sandler.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.