The A+ program began in 1993 under then Governor Mel Carnahan and has been used by over 50,000 Missouri students for at least one semester of community college expenses. This program offers scholarships to qualified graduates from A+ designated high schools, who then attend a participating public state community college or technical school, such as Crowder College. The first year after the program was initiated, only 57 Missouri high schools were designated as A+ schools, and that year 350 high school students took advantage of the program. Today, 533 high schools are designated as A+ schools with 12,500 students participating in the program last year and an estimated14,000 students expected to participate in it this year.
To qualify for the Missouri A+ program, students must have attended an A+ designated public Missouri high school for at least three years (no home schooled or private schooled student is eligible), have earned at least a 2.5 GPA (C+), have a 95% high school attendance record, do 50 hours of unpaid mentoring or tutoring, and maintain a good conduct record. New this year is a requirement that qualifying students must score proficient or advanced on the Algebra 1 End of Course (EOC) exam or a higher EOC math exam that was approved by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
With the increasing number of students participating in the A+ program and with higher college tuition costs, the program is growing faster than present funding can handle. Because of the popularity of this program, members of the General Assembly, as well as Governor Nixon, have advocated for its expansion. However, some legislators believe there should be a strengthening of the qualification requirements and they should be based more on a student’s achievements.
The General Assembly passed SB 224 that explicitly states only U.S. citizens or permanent residents may participate in the scholarship program. Existing statutes state that participating students must be “lawfully present.” The intent of the statute is to prevent illegal immigrants from taking advantage of a taxpayer funded scholarship program.
In 2012, the Obama Administration, through executive order, established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Students who were granted DACA status are still in the country illegally, and even though they do not have lawful immigration status, they are considered “lawfully present” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and do not face immediate threat of deportation.
Because the Obama Administration considers these students “lawfully present,” the Missouri Department of Higher Education (MDHE) moved forward this year with an administrative rule change that would, for the first time, extend taxpayer funded A+ benefits to illegal immigrants who were granted DACA status. It is important to note, because more students participated and qualified for the program, 2015 was the first year ever the A+ program did not have enough money, even though the General Assembly approved the governor’s requested appropriation. Consequently, legal students who had earned and who had been promised full tuition benefits saw those benefits cut. Another requirement, besides being “lawfully present,” is that students must make a good faith effort to apply for all available federal financial aid prior to being awarded the A+ scholarship. In other words, the A+ scholarship is the payer-of-last-resort.
In displaying a good faith effort, students must have first completed the Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to receive federal financial aid. Since the DACA students are here illegally, they are not eligible for federal financial aid and can not complete the FAFSA form. The MDHE administrative rule change to allow DACA students access to the A+ scholarship would exempt those students from their requirement to complete the federal aid forms. Since DACA students will not receive federal aid, the entire cost of their scholarship will be the responsibility of Missouri taxpayers. The majority of legal students on the A+ program are receiving some federal aid.
SB 224 does not take an existing benefit away from any student, rather it prevents the MDHE rule change from taking effect. If the General Assembly overrides the governor’s veto, illegal immigrants will continue to remain ineligible for the A+ program. If the governor’s veto is sustained, we will have authorized illegal immigrants to utilize an already burdened taxpayer funded program, a program whose entire cost will be covered by Missouri taxpayers.
Senate Bill 224 is proving to be one of the more controversial bills we will be considering at the September Veto Session.