Missouri merit-based college aid program - Bright Flight - criticized for lack of diversity

Feb 5, 2016
Originally published on February 4, 2016 2:43 pm

A student advocacy group wants Missouri’s merit-based scholarship program, Bright Flight, to be restructured. Advocates say it should take a back seat to need-based programs that are vital for low-income students seeking a college education.

“Bright Flight is supposed to be a statewide scholarship, but it's more a where-did-you-go-to-high-school scholarship, because we can almost accurately predict whether or not a student would qualify for Bright Flight based on where they went to high school,” said Karissa Anderson, manager of advocacy and policy research for The Active Advocacy Coalition, an affiliate of St. Louis Graduates and The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis.

The report concludes that out of Missouri’s 800 high schools, students from 20 are awarded one-third of the program’s funding. To Anderson, this shows that Bright Flight is ignoring a much bigger issue in Missouri. 

“There are more and more students that have financial need [in Missouri], so we really want to target the scarce funds that we do have into need-based programs, because we know those scholarships go to students that depend on those dollars,” said Anderson.

The coalition wants funds for Bright Flight be reallocated to Access Missouri, the state’s need-based scholarship program. According to its report, between 1991 and 2002, 71 percent of Bright Flight recipients came from a household with an annual income of more than $60,000. Anderson says Access Missouri helps determine whether a student will be able to go to college at all, while Bright Flight simply provides incentives for a student to stay in-state.

Fighting brain drain

The Bright Flight program was established in the 1980s by former state Rep. Ken Jacob to alleviate concerns about “brain drain.” The idea was that too many smart students were leaving the state for college, possibly never to return and contribute to Missouri's workforce and economy.

The program currently serves more than 6,000 students who earned an ACT score among the state’s top 3 percent. This year’s minimum score to qualify is 31, which is dramatically higher than the state’s 21.5 score average. Students who qualify for the scholarship receive $3,000 in aid for up to 10 semesters.

Access Missouri, the state’s need-based financial aid program, serves more than 50,000 students a year with a minimum scholarship grant of $1,500.

Both programs were addressed in Gov. Jay Nixon’s proposed budget for 2017. He would increase the state’s three educational support programs by $7 million.

Bright Flight would receive an additional $500,000, Access Missouri would receive an additional $4 million, and the remaining $2.5 million would go to the A+ Scholarship program, which supports students in community college and vocational schools.

With Nixon’s proposed increases, Bright Flight funding would total $17.9 million; Access Missouri’s would total $71.3 million.

Where is the need?

Even with this increase, the coalition is skeptical that Bright Flight gives financial aid to those that really need it. 

“We know that Missouri wants to have 60 percent of its adult population to have a post-secondary degree by the year 2025,” said Amber Overton, the education policy intern at The Active Advocacy Coalition. “We just feel like that’s not possible if we’re awarding funding to students who don’t necessarily need that money.”

Student members of the coalition visited the Capitol Wednesday to distribute their report and discuss their recommendations with Missouri lawmakers.

“It’s important that the student voices are heard, because often times they’re the voices that are left out of the process and the decision-making,” said Bryan Capers, director of the Teen Leadership Program at the Wyman Center. “So we’re making sure they’re here, they’re heard, and they’re active.”

Merit is merit

Marlena Badden, an elementary education student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was among the students meeting with legislators. Her first visit was with Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. He listened, but held steadfast to the benefits of merit-based scholarships.

“I came from a not wealthy family, and I was able to achieve merit based scholarships,” said Engler. “My daughter, however, comes from a wealthy family, and now has $200,000 in student loans for her doctorate. I think it’s just unfair to her to be paying something like 7.8 percent interest on her loans, when she scored 30-something on the ACT.”

Engler said the state should continue to allow appropriate funding for merit-based programs and need-based programs. There’s no need for one to stifle the other.

But the coalition claims that Bright Flight is encroaching upon the college opportunities of many different students around the state.

“[Bright Flight] is disproportionately awarded to students in metropolitan areas. It’s disproportionately awarded to white students. It’s disproportionately awarded to students in wealthier school districts, and also students in private schools,” said Overton.

More than the ACT

To make the distribution of the program's funds more equitable, the coalition is calling for the Department of Education to change eligibility requirements. 

The coalition is calling on Bright Flight administration to either throw out ACT measurements completely (“We know that ACT is correlated more with family wealth than anything,” said Overton.) or to add grade point average and community service to their qualifying criteria. 

Liz Coleman, director of Marketing and Communications for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said adding factors to consider might be a possible next step for the program. But that’s up to legislators. 

“There are a number of ways that students’ academic achievement could be assessed,” said Coleman. "The way the Bright Flight scholarship was established in state law was based on the ACT or SAT, so to change the criteria for earning the Bright Flight scholarship would take action from the legislature. It wouldn’t be up to us.”

The department said it has not verified the coalition’s data or  taken an official position on the report. 

Mallory Daily is an intern at the State Capitol Bureau for St. Louis Public Radio. Follow on Twitter: @malreports

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