Law may expand A-Plus scholarship program

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A state scholarship program that helps fund two-year degrees could be expanded to include four-year degrees, possibly increasing its use locally.

State lawmakers are working on legislation to expand the A-Plus Scholarship program, a state-funded initiative that provides money for high school students to attend a community college after graduation. Senate Bill 558, which is awaiting final approval in the Senate, would allow students to use the funds to go onto a four-year institution after completing a two-year degree.

Less than 3 percent of Central High School's 289 graduates had an A-Plus Scholarship last year. To qualify, students are required to maintain a 2.5 grade point average, a 95 percent attendance rate and complete 50 hours of mentoring during high school.

High school principal Mike Cowan said the program's extension could increase local participation.

"I certainly think it's a good initiative," he said.

Cowan said a small percentage of students use the program because there is no accessibility to a local community college. He said the cost of a daily commute to other schools offsets the financial benefits.

"For many of our students who come especially from lower-income families, transportation remains an issue," Cowan said.

With the potential to earn a four-year degree, he said, more students could overcome those obstacles to get through the first two years at a community college.

The measure received its first round of approval in the Senate earlier this week and was met with praise from Gov. Jay Nixon who proposed the expansion during his campaign.

"By putting a four-year degree within reach for more Missouri students, we will ensure that our state has the highly trained, highly qualified work force necessary to lead our economy into the 21st century," Nixon said in a statement.

Pending approval

The bill needs approval in the House of Representatives. Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, said it is unlikely the legislation will make it through the House of Representatives by the end of the legislative session as lawmakers work to complete the budget. Kingery, chairman of the higher education committee, said he hopes to work out the details of the measure so it will pass early in the next legislative session.

He said funding is also limited and would have to at least double to finance the program. Kingery said the initiative could be funded minimally at first and gradually increase.

"We might have to nurse this thing along for a couple of years until our economy gets a little better," he said.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education receives $25.3 million for the program. Students receive the money for tuition and fees after securing state and federal funds. High schools that offer the program must go through a designation process requiring a curriculum review and a coordinator to monitor the participants. The legislation would also eliminate the designation process, making the program available to all students statewide.

Currently, 254 schools have an A-Plus designation. An additional 20 are awaiting final approval, including Jackson School District, said Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner for the department.

He said the legislation, if approved, would create more opportunities for all students.

"This hopefully will open up that avenue for kids to received additional training," Johnson said.

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