Missouri A+ program expanded for certain immigrants

Thursday, September 4, 2014 | 8:44 p.m. CDT; updated 7:03 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 5, 2014

COLUMBIA — The Coordinating Board for Higher Education decided Thursday that students brought to the United States illegally can apply for scholarships through the state's A+ program if they arrived before their 16th birthday and meet certain conditions.

The decision will help these students get financial aid for two years at participating colleges and universities, largely community and technical or vocational colleges. MU does not participate in the program.

To be eligible, students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average and have at least a 95 percent attendance rate in high school.

Students must also prove they are "lawfully present" in the United States by providing documentation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that they meet age, residency and education requirements. Known as Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, the federal initiative was launched in 2012. It allows students to remain in the U.S. for up to four years.

As of December, the Department of Homeland Security had approved Deferred Action for Child Arrivals status for 2,296 Missouri residents.

Students who have this status, however, are not eligible to receive federal financial aid or to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The new ruling will allow them to receive scholarship assistance through Missouri's A+ program without filling out a FAFSA.

"The department is in the process of amending this rule to ensure that any student meeting the requirements of the statute is not prohibited from participating in the program because they are not able to complete their FAFSA application," said Liz Coleman, director of communications and marketing for the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

The A+ program reimburses the balance of tuition costs not covered by other financial aid. The program requires students to make a "good faith effort to first secure all available federal sources of funding" before applying for the scholarship.

Students who receive A+ scholarships in high school must perform at least 50 hours of unpaid tutoring or mentoring, which can include job shadowing.

About 500 students at Rock Bridge High School are part of the program, according to Jane Piester, the school's A+ program coordinator.

Piester said she didn't know how the new ruling would affect applications at Rock Bridge, but she has had students living in the country illegally inquire about their eligibility.

"I encouraged them to explain to the financial adviser at their prospective school to find other means of finance for their tuition," Piester said. "There are many other great programs out there."

Likewise, Coleman couldn't predict the outcome.

"The department has no way of knowing the impact of this issue on Missouri's colleges and universities because there is no way to determine how many students with DACA status will qualify for and use the A+ scholarship program," Coleman said.

The amended rule now has to go through the state rule-making process, which could take six to eight months to complete. The process allows for a public comment period and review by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Students with the status will not be eligible to receive A+ scholarships during the 2014-15 academic year. A firm eligibility date will be established after the changes have been made.

"The A+ program is a great program, and any students who are eligible will greatly benefit," Piester said.

 Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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