The A+ Scholarship program was designed to assist Missouri students in pursuing postsecondary education, but a legislator is saying the program is broken.
Only 2 percent of recipients of A+ funds are Black, and data obtained from the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development contradicts previous explanations.
At a legislative hearing in January, Leroy Wade, deputy commissioner for the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, was questioned by state Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, who is a strong critic of the A+ Scholarship program. With Black students making up more than 15 percent of public school students in Missouri, Windham questioned why Black participation in the program is so low.
Wade said this racial disparity is due to the "last-dollar" nature of the program, calling it a "counter-Pell Grant" program. As a last-dollar program, A+ Scholarship funds are applied after all other sources of financial aid. This means students who receive the Pell Grant would not receive funds from the A+ Scholarship Program, making them "zero-award" students.
Contrary to the department's response, Black students are not a much larger portion of zero-award students.
In data obtained by the News Tribune from a Sunshine Law request, only 4 percent of the zero-award students reported over the past five years were Black.
"Newly uncovered data regarding the A+ Scholarship is troubling and raises more questions than answers," Windham said. "My guess is that this data either points to a lack of reporting by institutions, a high churn rate for students who receive a zero award or both. The scholarship's promise of free college is broken to many students due to its last-dollar approach."
To be eligible for A+ funds, high school students have to complete a range of criteria, like performing at least 50 hours of unpaid tutoring, graduating with a grade point average above 2.5, and avoiding unlawful use of drugs and alcohol.
Every year, thousands of students complete these requirements in hopes of having their tuition paid for. However, based on Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development data, many of these students do not see a dollar from the A+ Scholarship program.
In 2018, 2,448 students completed 50 hours of tutoring and graduated with the minimum GPA, but did not receive any funds. Each of those zero-award students completed all of the requirements but didn't receive any money from the A+ Scholarship program due to other sources of financial aid.
"A lot of these students think they're going to get the A+ Scholarship, they work for the A+ Scholarship, and then they don't get it," Windham said.
Windham said this misinformation problem could be stopped at the guidance counselor level. He said some counselors are not aware of all the details and possible ways for eligible students to not be awarded A+ Scholarship funds.
While Wade made clear he did not want to disparage guidance counselors, he agreed with Windham in that a greater explanation about the program would help. He said students need to understand the structure early on to make an informed decision about if they want to do it. Wade speculated if more students were better informed about the program, they would know not to participate.
"We see a fairly constant stream of families that call up and say, 'What do you mean we're not going to get any A+ because we're getting Pell?' So it's clear that there's not the level of understanding you would hope would be there at that level," Wade said.
Nature of the concern
Wade conceded the Sunshine Law request data shows Black participation in the A+ Scholarship program is low, but he could not provide a definitive explanation. He said it is concerning but more information is needed to understand the issue because he thinks some colleges are not reporting their zero-award students.
During the legislative session, new wording was added to Missouri's budget that will require colleges to submit their data about zero-award students. Windham said more questions than answers may arise, but it is necessary to see what is actually happening.
"We need to learn more about it," Wade said. "I think that's the nature of the concern right now. Getting the zero-award data will be helpful because it gives us a more complete picture," although he acknowledged the issue can't be fixed overnight.
Wade said the department is continuing to have conversations about data that shows racial characteristics in programs.
"I would hope that we would see a slightly different picture once we are able to be a little more confident that we have complete information," Wade said. "We've never really done a full study to see what's going on."
A 'broken' program
Windham has proposed several bills that would change how the A+ Scholarship program's funds are distributed. House Bill 884 would have made it a first-dollar program, as opposed to filling in the gaps left by other funding.
"That would essentially make it where, if you complete all the requirements of the program, you for sure are going to reap the benefits — no ifs, ands or buts about it," Windham said. "Right now, the A+ program is marketed as 'free college,' but it's not that for all students."
Wade said a first-dollar program would be best for students, but it all boils down to whether the state could fund it.
All of Windham's proposals are aimed at returning the A+ Scholarship program to what he says is its original purpose.
Former Gov. Mel Carnahan signed the Outstanding Schools Act of 1993, which included provisions that established the A+ Scholarship program. Carnahan intended for the program to motivate students to graduate from high school and get the education to find a job.
With 60 percent of A+ Scholarship recipients coming from families with adjusted gross incomes above $80,000 and 12 percent of recipients coming from families with an AGI above $150,000, Windham said the program has gradually gone away from its original purpose over the past 30 years.
"Mostly, it's a program that affects middle-income students, but I think it was born as a program for low-income and high-needs students," Windham said.
Wade said Windham's assessment was accurate.
"In terms of the funding that the program actually provides, he is pretty well right," Wade said. "It tends to be middle-income students who receive those funds because of the last-dollar approach."
Initially, only public school students could receive the funds. In 2016, the law changed to include private school students.
"The program was already broken at that point, in my opinion, but that just exacerbated the problem," Windham said, citing the A+ Scholarship program has gotten millions of dollars in increased funding since 2016. "It's slowly grown, and not in the right ways."
Wade shared statistics indicating A+ Scholarship recipients are more likely to succeed in college, saying: "I don't know that I would say the program is broken. We hear regularly how it has made a difference in students being able to attend postsecondary education and succeed in that regard."
Despite this, he said there is no question the A+ Scholarship program could be targeted differently and improved to benefit high school students in Missouri.
"There are a lot of good things about the A+ program we need to continue to focus on, but we don't want to let that crowd out the conversation about the things we could do to make it better and improve it so it can serve more students in a better way," Wade said.