Is Missouri’s A-Plus Program a Model for the Nation?
The bar for being an exemplary government program must be pretty low these days. Last week at a meeting in Ashland, Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill described Missouri’s A+ Scholarship Program as a “bright shining light in Missouri higher education” and offered it as a model for higher education reform nationwide. If it becomes that, students and taxpayers nationwide are in trouble.
The A-Plus program currently grants over 13,000 scholarships to Missouri community college students. To be eligible, students need to attend a community college or vocational school, must have graduated from a Missouri high school with at least a 2.5 GPA and 95% attendance, and have completed at least 50 hours of community service. The cost for the program in 2014–15 was more than $33 million.
At slightly more than $2,500 per student, this may seem like a good deal, until we see exactly what we are getting for our money. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Higher Education by scholars at the University of Missouri, for example, finds the A+ program increased “two-year college-going rates by 5.3 percentage points.” This gain, however, was nearly offset by a 3.8 percentage point decline in the number of students attending four-year institutions. While this is not entirely bad, it is a far cry from a “bright shining light.” If the goal is to get more students into college, we are not seeing much bang for our buck.
There is no question that college costs have been spiraling out of control. According to the College Board, the cost of public, two-year college has more than tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1975. It has almost quadrupled at public four-year colleges. Middle class families are feeling the squeeze. They want their children to get good jobs, which increasingly require a college degree, but cannot afford the skyrocketing prices.
Some politicians are tapping into those fears and proposing plans, like the A+ scholarship, that would make some or all of college “free.” But here is the dirty little secret about “free college” plans. They don’t actually make college free. They simply shift who pays for it.
We have a college cost problem. Just changing who pays that cost doesn’t make it any less of a problem. We should be talking about ways to rein in the cost of college, like promoting greater transparency of results and breaking up the accreditation cartel that keeps out new, lower-cost providers. We should also make universities that accept public scholarship dollars have some skin in the game, and require them to pay the state back some portion of those dollars if students do not succeed. Andrew Kelly at the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute has written volumes on how to accomplish this.
These reforms would actually help drive down the cost of college and help the state strategically use its scholarship dollars to promote real student success. That, not revolving-payer shell games, is what we can do if we really want to help our students.
The goals of Missouri’s A+ program are certainly commendable, but that does not make the program a model for the nation. We’re not even confident that is the right model for Missouri.