JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers have only a few weeks to decide whether to expand a college scholarship for top students in an effort to employ them in the state after graduation.
The Senate budget-writing panel is scheduled this week to consider funding for a new forgivable loan component in the Bright Flight program. The House included $7 million in loan funding in its budget plan earlier this year, and passed a measure to authorize the loan-forgiveness program last week.
Lawmakers have until May 9 to pass the budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. In order to enact the loan forgiveness program, the money would need to be included in the budget and lawmakers also would have to pass a separate bill authorizing the program before their session ends May 16.
Bright Flight scholarships are awarded to students who attend participating Missouri schools based on ACT or SAT scores; those who score in the top 3 percent now receive $2,500 per year. About 1,600 freshmen were given Bright Flight scholarships in 2013.
Under the pending legislation, those students also could receive a forgivable loan that could be worth about $5,000 if they attend one of Missouri's public four-year universities. Each year a student works in Missouri after school would count toward one year of loan forgiveness, and leaving Missouri before the loan is repaid would require it to be paid back with interest. The loan amount could not exceed the cost of tuition and other fees, but the academic scholarship would not count in that calculation.
Gov. Jay Nixon called for money to fund the forgivable loan component in his budget recommendation. He and other supporters say it will help entice top students to get jobs in Missouri after graduating college.
"We're losing our highest assets. A lot of very sharp kids are leaving the state," said Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, who's sponsoring the House legislation.
The plan has run into opposition on the Senate floor because of its projected cost. Legislative staff estimates it could reach $22 million annually once the loan forgiveness program is fully implemented.
It will take four years to realize the total cost because students currently receiving the scholarship would only eligible for the loan forgiveness after graduating. The cost analysis is based on the assumption that half of the students qualifying for a Bright Flight scholarship will take advantage of the loan at the maximum amount offered.
Opponents of expanding the program said it is possible more students would take advantage and that the state could face larger costs if schools raise tuition and fees.
But new attendance standards laid out in the legislation could also reduce the number of recipients eligible for the loan. Under the bill, students would need to complete 24 credit hours during their first year and 30 credit hours each following year to remain eligible for the scholarship.
State education officials project that 10 percent of Bright Flight scholars take five years to graduate, which could reduce loan forgiveness eligibility if those students don't meet the annual credit hour requirements.