Why is Missouri giving college aid to affluent families — and not the neediest students?

Missouri’s A+ scholarship program has opened doors for thousands of students by paying for two years of college. But too often, those who need the most financial help haven’t benefited.

As The Star reported, students in affluent suburban school districts are receiving the lion’s share of the scholarships — not struggling families. Because household income isn’t a criteria for the program, nearly 40% of the money is going to students from families with six-figure adjusted household incomes.

And while defenders of the status quo argue that the A+ program was not designed to be need-based, it’s evident that it’s time for an overhaul — as some educators and lawmakers have urged.

Administering the scholarships without consideration of financial need has excluded many minority students. And the requirements for the A+ program have precluded many low-income students in urban areas from qualifying.

Only 2% of the program’s participants are African American. Sixty percent of current funding is awarded to students from families with an adjusted gross income above $80,000, and approximately 12% is paid to families with an adjusted gross income above $150,000.

Suburban school districts have been the beneficiaries, while students in urban schools have struggled to meet the program’s requirements.

Students attending the three high schools in Lee’s Summit received more than $617,000 last year, while students at Kansas City’s Central Academy of Excellence received not one dime. Students at East High in Kansas City received a paltry $1,235.

State law requires students to exhaust any federal financial aid before using A+ funds. As a result, low-income students who qualify for Pell Grants are left with little or no A+ money.

The A+ program, which includes nearly every public high school in Missouri and some private and parochial schools, covers the cost of tuition for two years at one of the state’s public community colleges, vocational or technical schools.

Requirements include at least 50 hours of community service or mentoring, a 2.5 grade point average or above and a 95% attendance rate. Participants must also score proficient or advanced in an end-of-course Algebra I exam.

In October, the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workplace Development will release a report on the state of equity in Missouri higher education during its Equity in Missouri Higher Education Summit.

Revamping the A+ program through an equity lens should be at the top of the agenda. A tiered system based on financial need would be a start.

The Missouri Community College Association has opposed allowing award money to cover a limited amount of educational costs above tuition and general fees for students with financial need.

“We believe that A+ is an exceptionally successful program in its current form because it benefits all students who are eligible,” Brian Millner, president and CEO of the organization said.

Many educators and college access advocates say it’s time to rewrite the rules. They’re right. The neediest students should benefit from both A+ scholarships and Pell Grants.

As long as A+ is a “last dollar” scholarship, the funds will flow to more affluent students. And too many students with the greatest needs will see their college dreams slip away.