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Missouri Slashes Scholarship Meant To Keep Best And Brightest Students In State

Ryan Pivoney (L) and Reece Ellis are seniors at Truman State University. They're roommates and each recipients of Bright Flight.
Reece Ellis
Ryan Pivoney (L) and Reece Ellis are seniors at Truman State University. The roommates are both recipients of Bright Flight.

Missouri's Bright Flight Scholarship is for undergraduates who score in the top 3% of the ACT or SAT. The hope is that the extra money will keep them in state.

Parents aren’t the only ones wondering how to keep their college-bound children near home. The state of Missouri would like to figure it out as well, and since the late 1980s has offered a scholarship called Bright Flight that aims to keep the brightest students in the state.

“If these students stay in Missouri to go to school, the assumption is that they’re going to stay in Missouri to work and live as well,” says Leroy Wade, Deputy Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.

But this week, Bright Flight was one of the programs affected by Gov. Mike Parson’s $41 million in cuts to higher education. Roughly 7,700 Missouri undergraduates somewhere on the trajectory of completing their degrees will receive $1,800 rather than $3,000 for the 2020-2021 school year.

The scholarship is renewable for up to 10 semesters and is awarded to students who score in the top 3% on the SAT or ACT.

Reece Ellis, a senior studying political science at Truman State University in Kirksville, and one of his roommates are both recipients of Bright Flight. The two aren’t sure how the loss will play out, but they’re worried.

“If I need to go to the dentist, or I have a sudden car repair, it’s just not going to get fixed, and that’s going to really affect the way I’m going to live the rest of the semester,” Ellis says.

He knows he’s in better shape than some, because he has people who will help him financially if his savings won’t cover the difference left by the decreased scholarship amount. However, his roommate, Ryan Pivoney, editor of the student newspaper, will most likely have to find a second job so they can keep paying their bills as well as finish their senior year.

Ellis is the president of the College Democrats of Missouri and does virtual work for a political nonprofit in his native St. Louis. He thinks Missouri has been too quick to cut funding for higher education, with the idea that once people get used to living with less, another cut is made.

“It’s unfortunate and unfair, but I guess it’s the nature of the way we live here,” Ellis says.

According to an annual National Movers Study by United Van Lines, in 2019 51.1% of movement monitored by the study was away from Missouri, and 48.9% of movement was into the state.

Wade says that Bright Flight and other scholarships are the only state programs he’s aware of meant to stop or reverse that movement. But whether or not it's working is difficult to measure.

This year, he’s not even sure how many students will qualify for Bright Flight, because the pandemic has scrambled ACT and SAT testing schedules.

In a typical year, students qualify for the scholarship through the June ACT and SAT test dates of the year they graduate from high school. His office then receives their scores in August.

This year, however, some scheduled tests in April or June were canceled. Wade’s office extended the scholarship deadline to July, but now testing sites are limiting the number of students who can enter the facilities to test or simply not offering make-up tests.

“These students that were going to take the June test, and maybe even the April test, have been locked out of the process, and so we’re looking at how we can accommodate that. Should we extend the deadline even further beyond July to allow those students an adequate chance to achieve a qualifying score?” Wade asks.

Ultimately, Wade is hopeful that—as was the case after the Great Recession when funding was also cut—Bright Flight will once again go to students in the intended amount of $3,000, but when or if that will happen is unclear.

Neighboring Kansas has not yet made any cuts to state-funded scholarships for higher education.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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