Missouri’s public scholarship programs are not doing enough for college students who need help, while providing too much money for those with enough resources to pay for school on their own.

That’s the disturbing conclusion of an important new study from the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, a century-old charity dedicated to helping postsecondary students pay for a quality education.

Missouri gets an F for its four broad-based scholarship programs.

“Funding for Missouri’s need-based scholarship programs is consistently and grossly inadequate,” the study said. “Awards to students with financial need are significantly less than those made to students without financial need.”

Current programs are particularly unfair to rural students and Black students, the foundation said.

The state has two scholarship programs based on students’ financial need, called Access Missouri and Fast Track. In 2020, the two programs awarded $69 million in scholarships, all to households with median incomes under $40,000.

The awards went to almost 44,000 students. The median scholarship award for Access Missouri, by far the biggest program, was $1,543.60.

The state offers two merit-based scholarship programs, called A+ and Bright Flight. They awarded $65 million in scholarships to families whose median incomes exceeded $91,000.

The median award from the A+ program was $3,778.66. For Bright Flight, it was $2,625.

In short, wealthier families got nearly twice as much money as poorer families.

“The state’s scholarship programs especially shortchange students from households with low incomes,” the report stated.

Which is exactly backward.

Lower income students need and deserve more help. Often, these students are the first in the family to attend college. Missouri needs to spend twice as much, or more, to help those students.

Merit scholarships are still valuable. But the study confirms those students come from wealthier families and better school districts. They have advantages unavailable to students in poorer urban and rural districts.

The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis suggests a series of reforms aimed at fixing this sorry record.

“If education is to be a top priority in the state, financial assistance must be fundamentally restructured,” it said.

Among the ideas: Consolidate the four scholarship programs into a single entity, with need-based criteria for awards. Providing $130 million yearly for need-based scholarships would go a long way in providing fairness and opportunity for disadvantaged students.

But this need not be the only approach. Missouri could retain some merit scholarships, but increase the funds for need-based awards. The goal should be spending twice as much on scholarships for those who need assistance as is now spent on awards for merit.

The foundation also suggests interim reforms, including changes in requirements and qualifications for state-based scholarship programs. Recipients of A+ scholarships, for example, must provide a minimum of 50 hours of unpaid community service to qualify. As the study explains, those criteria are tough for many urban and rural students, who can’t afford to work for free.

The report was compiled by fellows at the Scholarship Foundation, who should be congratulated for their work.

Reform should be a top priority of lawmakers, and of Gov. Mike Parson, next year.

This was first published by the Kansas City Star and reprinted with permission.

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