JOPLIN, Mo. —
The first time AshLeigh Thomlinson took the ACT as a Neosho High School student, she received a score of 30.
But the minimum score to qualify for a Bright Flight scholarship at that time was a 31. Thomlinson was sure she could achieve that. She took the ACT again. And then a third time.
Finally, on her fourth try, she got a 32. She had done it. She would receive the Bright Flight scholarship, which rewards the state’s top students with up to $3,000 annually for their college tuition if they go to school in Missouri.
“I really wanted it, and I really worked hard for it,” said Thomlinson, who is now a senior at Missouri Southern State University.
It’s students such as Thomlinson that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon hopes to keep in the state with a new financial aid incentive that would give students who receive Bright Flight scholarships the option for an extra $5,000 annually if they agree to work full time in Missouri immediately after school. Nixon plans to include an additional $15 million for the scholarship with his recommendations for next year’s state budget.
The governor said college affordability is a priority and that his proposal will help students begin careers without significant college debt.
“By strengthening this successful scholarship program, we’ll keep more of our best and brightest here at home so they can contribute their talent to our 21st-century economy,” Nixon said when he announced his plan. “For the state, Bright Flight Boost is a smart investment with a big return in the form of a well-educated, highly qualified work force.”
Top 3 percent
Bright Flight is a merit-based program that encourages the state’s top-ranked high school seniors to attend Missouri colleges and universities; its scholarship is awarded based on ACT or SAT scores. The Missouri Department of Higher Education reported that students scoring in the top 3 percent now receive $2,500 per year, which is less than the permitted $3,000 when the program is fully funded by legislators. Missouri law also allows students scoring in the top 4 percent and 5 percent to receive up to $1,000 when the top level is fully funded, which hasn’t happened it at least the past five years.
But currently, those students aren’t required to work in Missouri after they graduate.
Nixon’s new proposal would require a test score in the top 3 percent and allow students to receive the larger scholarship for four years. Graduates would need to work in Missouri for each year they accepted the enhanced scholarship, and those who leave early would have to pay back whatever remained.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said officials likely need to increase resources for Bright Flight and that he looks forward to working with Nixon, though he noted the governor previously has made cuts to what lawmakers included for the scholarship.
“We’ve got tremendous Missouri-grown students who are leaving the state and taking their talents and intellectual abilities to other states that are offering them more than we can,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia. “That should never be the case.”
A total of 53 MSSU students received $91,000 in Bright Flight scholarships in 2012-13, the most recent year for which data was available, according to the state education department. Two Bright Flight students drawing $4,000 in the scholarship program attended Crowder College during the same year, the department said.
The largest number of students enrolled in Bright Flight attend the University of Missouri-Columbia — 1,854 in 2012-13, drawing more than $3.5 million in scholarships, according to the department. The governor’s office, meanwhile, said nearly 20 percent of undergraduates at Truman State University in Kirksville receive the scholarship.
Funding for the program, which is dependent on allocations from state legislators, has fluctuated in recent years. But the overall amount given annually to students has remained relatively flat — averaging around the $2,000 mark — since the scholarship program was introduced in the late 1980s, even as the cost of tuition has skyrocketed over the past two decades.
During its early years, the scholarship would have covered most or all of — and, in some cases, more than — a student’s tuition. In 1987, a full-time Bright Flight student would have paid $864 for a year’s worth of tuition to Missouri Southern and received $2,000 from the scholarship program — enough to cover not only tuition, but possibly also room and board, books and supplemental university fees.
But that same student today would pay $4,156.80 in tuition to MSSU this year; a $2,500 Bright Flight scholarship covers only about 60 percent of those costs. And the scholarship covers only a fraction of the estimated $9,430 in annual tuition paid by students this year at University of Missouri-Columbia, the state’s flagship institution.