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.
Scholarship ‘not enough’
Sue Day, a longtime counselor at Joplin High School, said the district is just beginning to follow up with last year’s graduates but that between half and 60 percent of the top tier chose out-of-state schools.
She said many students in recent years have not used Bright Flight, citing both the reduction in the amount of the award and the fact that the amount awarded can change each year. She also said that in some cases, the amount offered by Bright Flight was not enough to persuade students to stay in the state, as they were often reviewing “considerable” scholarship offers from other schools because of their high test scores.
“I think it hurt the objective of the program, which is to keep the brightest kids in the state of Missouri,” she said.
Karen Talbott, a guidance counselor at Webb City High School, said many district graduates take Bright Flight and stay in Missouri. But for others, the amount isn’t enough of an incentive to stay in state.
“It does play a factor (in determining school choice) because that’s money for four years, and that does affect you,” she said. “I would say that it in and of itself is not enough to keep a student (in Missouri). If you’re a student looking at what college can pay the most, they’ll go for the full ride, whether it be in Missouri or another state.”
Darren Fullerton, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Missouri Southern, said Bright Flight is an important part of recruiting and outreach to local students, but its value has lessened over the years because of the increasing cost of tuition.
“I think it does help us attract some of the top area students to stay local and not move away,” he said. “But I think that if the scholarships stay flat over a period of years, they do lose some of the economic value.”
All three administrators said they hope the governor’s proposal pays off.
“I know that would be a tremendous incentive, depending on what area the student wanted to go into,” Day said. “If the student was going into education or the human services area, that would be wonderful because there are plenty of jobs in Missouri.”
Fullerton said he appreciates the possibility of the state investing more in its scholarship programs.
“I hope it does encourage students to stay in Missouri,” he said. “That just enhances our community and the work force in the state.”
For Thomlinson, the Missouri Southern student, the $2,000 she gets each year from Bright Flight helps supplement her other financial aid, which includes a federal Pell grant.
Thomlinson, a biochemistry major, said receiving the scholarship played a role in her choosing Missouri Southern, as she had also been considering going to college somewhere in her native North Carolina. She also said Nixon’s proposed incentive to the program would have interested her if it had been available when she was starting college because she plans to work in Missouri after she graduates from Missouri Southern and finishes medical school.
“It would have been just that much more beneficial to me,” she said.
But the proposed bump for the program, which the governor announced in late November at Lincoln Preparatory Academy in Kansas City and at Truman State University in Kirksville, prompted some in the state to ask about Access Missouri, a financial assistance program that is based on need rather than test scores.
Faith Sandler, a leader with two St. Louis-area organizations working with low-income students, said Bright Flight should not be the top priority for financial aid. She said there is evidence that additional funding would help Access Missouri, which has faced cuts in the past.
“The state should be invested in supporting opportunity for all students regardless of their economic circumstance,” Sandler said. “The state stands to benefit as much from a student of low-income — or more — receiving a quality education and a degree than the state does by a student who was already well positioned to achieve his degree.”
Sandler is the co-chairwoman of St. Louis Graduates, which promotes post-secondary degree completion among low-income and first generation students, and the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that awards need-based interest-free loans and grants.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.