Missouri extends tuition-free college offer to private high school students

Students from private and parochial schools will soon be eligible for tuition-free college as an extension of the A+ scholarship program.
Students from private and parochial schools will soon be eligible for tuition-free college as an extension of the A+ scholarship program.

Until now, Missouri students had to attend a public high school to participate in the state’s A+ schools program.

But that will change Aug. 28 when new legislation takes effect that allows private and parochial high schools to become certified through the Missouri Board of Education as A+ schools. The legislation was recently signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon.

The A+ scholarship program, which under Nixon has expanded to include nearly every public high school in Missouri, enables qualified students to attend one of the state’s public community colleges or technical schools tuition-free for two years.

“I am pleased that we can now offer the same educational opportunities to high school students who attend nonpublic schools and demonstrate hard work and dedication to meet A+ requirements,” Mark James, president of Metropolitan Community College, said in a statement on Friday.

To qualify, students must have at least a 2.5 GPA and a 95 percent attendance record. They also must spend at least 50 hours tutoring or mentoring other students.

Officials with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Friday that they were not sure how long it would take for a school applying for A+ designation to be ready to accept students into the program.

Students have to attend a designated A+ school for three consecutive years prior to high school graduation. Once a school is designated A+, any student who has been at the school three years and meets all the A+ criteria can qualify.

State higher education officials didn’t have projections on how many more students the new law would attract to the program. But they did not expect the law, which did not increase the A+ budget, to impact A+ enrollment levels until the 2017-2018 academic year.

“In the past when A+ got more popular, it meant less money to go to students,” said Sarah Potter, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

With the rising cost of college tuition over the last decade, Missouri’s A+ program became extremely popular as a way for students to reduce college costs. With nearly every public high school in the state participating in the program, the number of students seeking two years of free tuition grew rapidly.

In the 2014-15 school year, 13,142 students participated in the program at a cost to the state of $33.3 million.

In the 2015-2016 academic year, the Missouri General Assembly approved an increase for the A+ scholarship program of $2 million.

But state education officials said then that even with the additional money, there was substantial risk of a shortfall. To address that possibility, the state added requirements for A+ students already enrolled in college, including a completion requirement for all students and a grade point average requirement for first-time A+ students.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc