KANSAS CITY — The state of Missouri gives millions of dollars to students every year to pay for two years of college. Yet most of the money goes to students in more affluent districts and not to those who need it the most.
Now educators want the state to reexamine the criteria for the 30-year-old A+ scholarship program so students who may not qualify — often through no fault of their own — would have a better chance at getting the money.
"I would love to see A+ identify some flex criteria or tier the scholarship monies," said Jermaine Wilson, director of counseling and support services for Kansas City Public Schools.
In a district where roughly 95% of students come from low-income households, landing an A+ scholarship "could really swing the pendulum and change the entire trajectory of their lives," he said. "But all of the current research shows that schools in areas with immense poverty and trauma have multiple issues to navigate through."
The program covers tuition for two years at any of the state's community colleges or technical schools.
To qualify, students must meet certain academic criteria and volunteer to tutor or mentor other students for 50 hours. But they must meet strict attendance standards as well, The Kanas City Star reported.
Yet for some students, it's a struggle just getting to school every day. If mom can't afford child care, sometimes the oldest child has to stay home to care for younger siblings, said Marla Sheppard, the Kansas City district's deputy superintendent.
Along those same lines, she said, is a problem educators call student mobility, when students don't stay put in one school. Maybe because of evictions or because of homelessness, their family moves around, often in the middle of the school year. The student's grades and attendance suffer, Sheppard said, two key areas measured to qualify for A+ money.
A+ students need an overall grade point average of 2.5 or higher on a 4.0 scale and a cumulative 95% attendance over four years of high school. With 174 school days in the year, if a student misses 10 days, there goes the A+ attendance criteria. They also need to attend the same high school for three years immediately prior to graduation.
In Kansas City, "40% of kids end up in a different school from the one they started in before the end of the year," Sheppard said. Her district has the area's highest mobility rate. "Our kids are constantly moving, and those are not factors we can control. It's poverty. Is poverty the fault of the child?"
Urban education advocates argue that much of the A+ scholarship money isn't going where it is most needed.
Students from middle-income families and those in the more affluent suburban districts consistently are the ones raking in the bulk of those dollars. The scholarship does not consider income as a qualifier, said Leroy Wade, deputy commissioner of higher education for the state. Students who meet the criteria, regardless of their family's economic status, are eligible.
Last year, for example, Raymore-Peculiar students received $299,242 in A+ scholarship dollars. Blue Springs and Blue Springs South high schools each claimed more than $150,000. Students attending Lee's Summit's three high schools pulled in a total of more than $617,000.
At the same time, students at Kansas City's Lincoln College Preparatory Academy got $12,004 — the most of any of the district's schools. East High School got $1,235, and Central Academy of Excellence students got nothing.
Students at Hogan Preparatory Academy, a public charter school, also did not collect any A+ money, but Hogan's new superintendent, Jayson Strickland, said he intends to investigate why. "We are going through a reboot right now, and as we do that I want to be sure that Hogan students are prepared to take advantage of every resource that is going to give them access to college and set them up for success in life," Strickland said.
Some students jeopardize their chances for A+ money the first year of high school because they don't score well on the Algebra 1 exam at the end of the year.
"They may have the attendance, the 50 hours of tutoring and mentoring but don't qualify because of their algebra score," Wilson said. "It hurts my heart and why we are pushing so hard" in the earlier grades preparing students to perform better in math.
The most needy students are not only in the urban districts, said Brad Welle, deputy superintendent for Grain Valley schools in eastern Jackson County. Last year, Grain Valley High School students received $301,800 in A+ money, more than any other school in the area.
"Grain Valley looks more suburban that it used to," Welle said, adding that part of the district is rural. "At its core we are primarily made up of working class communities, and for a lot of our students, if not for A+, they would not be college-bound from a financial stand point."
Welle said that 30% of Grain Valley High School graduates start college at a two-year school.
"I think Grain Valley is a great example of A+ being realized the way it was intended," Walle said. "This money is going to families with need." Walle said his district has built A+ criteria into the high school curriculum and invested money into hiring teachers to focus on making sure students work the necessary tutoring and mentoring volunteer hours.
"I do think, though, that one area the state could look at adjusting is the 95% attendance requirement," Welle said. "That is a high bar to hit."
Cameron Shinault wasn't going to let any of the obstacles get in his way. He grew up in a tough neighborhood on Kansas City's East Side. Long before he finished high school, Shinault, the youngest of five children, decided he would be the first to graduate from college. It was going to be his way out, he said. But he knew his parents, even though their income put them somewhere in the middle class, could not help him pay for it.
"Let's face it, college tuition is expensive. Crazy expensive," Shinault said. "Nobody I know in Kansas City can just plop down $10,000 or $20,000 a year for college, unless you take out loans. And I knew I did not want to be in debt."
So Shinault made a business decision: "The minute I graduated from high school I was like, I'm going to do A+." Lucky for Shinault, Lincoln's graduation requirements mirror qualifications for A+.
Now 20, Shinault is starting his third year at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City, working toward a career in electrical engineering. "And the most I've had to pay so far is about $150 for books," he said. "If it weren't for A+ I would be about $5,000 in debt by now.
"I mean, the state's giving you money for free college," Shinault said. "Who doesn't like free? It's just good business.
"I know I was lucky. I came from a two-parent household that's stable, and my parents, they pushed me. A lot of kids I know didn't have anyone pushing them to wake up in the morning and get to school. It makes me sad that so many kids I know don't or can't tap into A+."
The A+ program launched in 1993 as part of a high school improvement plan that gave public schools grant money to add rigor to their curriculum. In turn, only students who graduated from these improved A+ schools could qualify for two years of free community college.
In the late 1990s the state stopped granting money to schools for improvement but continued giving scholarships, eventually adding in students at private schools as well.
In 2018 the state doled out more than $36.4 million to nearly 13,000 students. This year, Wade said, that rose to $39 million for more than 13,000 students.
In the Hickman Mills school district, all the students have some financial need — 59% of households have incomes less than $50,000. About a third of the graduating class qualifies for A+.
But under the scholarship rules, the neediest students must get their college money from Pell Grants instead, the need-based federal financial aid program. They are required to first use those federal dollars — which are good for six years of college — before tapping into A+ money. The maximum Pell Grant award for 2019-2020 school year is $6,195, which might cover the cost of a community college but not most four-year schools.
A+ money is only available for the first two years of college.
"So many of the most needy students never really get to use the A+ money they qualified for," said Dena Norris, associate vice chancellor for student services at Metropolitan Community College. Norris said MCC has about 2,000 students a year paying for tuition with A+ money.
"I am a strong advocate of the program even if over the years the purpose of it has changed," Norris said. "It still helps students, whether they are low-income or not, to pay for school."
Missouri state Rep. Kevin L. Windham Jr., a Democrat from St. Louis County, hopes to get the rules changed. He plans to propose legislation in January that would make A+ money the first dollars a student uses so they could benefit from both A+ and Pell Grants.
For now, he points out, nearly 40% of the A+ money goes to students from families with an adjusted household income of $100,000 or more.
Cameron is taking classes on MCC's Maple Woods and Longview campuses. Next year he'll transfer to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to complete the last two years of his engineering bachelor's degree program.
A+ won't cover his last two years at UMKC, where tuition and fees for undergraduate Missouri residents runs $10,000 a year. But Cameron is hoping for some school scholarships to help him foot that bill.
While UMKC and the other University of Missouri System schools don't take A+ money for tuition, several other four year schools in the area do. Avila University said this year it has 57 students paying with A+ money.
The University of Central Missouri this year is giving out its first A+ Recognition Scholarship. It is valued at $500 per year, or $250 a semester, and is given to incoming freshmen who have completed the A+ program at a Missouri high school.
Drew Griffin, the schools director of admissions, said the scholarship is renewable for one year after a student completes 24 UCM credit hours and maintains a 3.0 or higher GPA. It's just one more way the college is looking to help reduce college debt load.