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The $10.1 million Gov. Mike Parson announced this week would provide aid to Missouri's A+ scholarship program is not quite enough to cover all of the program's increased needs, but it will benefit students, including hundreds using the program at State Technical College of Missouri in Linn.

Parson on Wednesday said he would recommend the additional $10.1 million for the A+ program — $4.9 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and $5.2 million in supplemental funding — to be included in the state's budget.

The A+ program provides scholarship funds to eligible graduates of A+ designated high schools who attend a participating public community college or vocational or technical school as well as certain private two-year vocational or technical schools.

That list of colleges and vocational or technical schools includes State Tech, where spokesman Brandon McElwain said an average of 52 percent of students use the A+ program.

Parson said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more students to use the A+ program than originally anticipated in the state's budget — hence the need for more money.

Becky Dunn, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, said "the pandemic has changed students' higher education plans by pushing them to stay close to home to avoid dormitory life and offering a lower-cost option."

Costs for the A+ program — actual from the summer and projected for the fall — are up approximately 19 percent over the same time last year, Dunn said.

"Because actual data will not be available for another couple of months, student numbers are more suspect; but, if the fall estimates are accurate, the number of students (in the program) is up by 50 percent over fall last year," she said.

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A 50 percent increase in students would probably not lead to a similar increase in cost, she added, "but it is an indicator that an increase in the number of recipients is one of the drivers."

Dunn said, however, there may be more reasons to the growth in the A+ program — costs in the previous fiscal year were already up by about 10 percent from the year before that.

"Several years ago, the Legislature expanded the program to include graduates of designated private high schools. We had anticipated it would take several years for that change to impact enrollments, and so that is likely a contributing factor," she said.

"Two years ago, the Legislature shortened the time a student must attend an A+ high school to qualify from three to two years. This change may also have an impact on growth," she added.

District and school leaders told the News Tribune last year — and education researchers have previously found — the availability of the A+ program is not only making college more accessible for more students, but it may be steering graduates to two-year colleges instead of four-year schools.

Whatever the specific reasons for growth in the A+ program, "the department estimates a shortage of about $11.5 million, so the $10.1 million announced by Gov. Parson is vital to keeping this program funded," Dunn said.

McElwain said 802 students at State Tech would have been impacted by the A+ budget shortfall.

More information about the A+ scholarship program is available at dhewd.mo.gov/ppc/grants/aplusscholarship.php.

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