Students at Webster were already learning how to adapt to attending a university in the middle of a pandemic. Now, Bright Flight recipients must adapt financially to deal with the loss of $1,200 in financial aid.
Sophomore Caleb Broeker was already struggling with the return to Webster. With three hybrid classes, one online course and one in-person class, Broeker feels like they are paying full tuition without receiving the full college experience.
Then, Broeker learned their Bright Flight award was reduced by $1,200 when contacted for an interview.
“It’s just one more thing on top of the hybrid courses, the online courses,” Broeker said. “It’s all adding up to the question of is it worth it? Is it worth going to a private university during these times and when the higher education funding is just being pushed aside for god knows what?”
Recipients of the Bright Flight program saw their award drop from $3,000 to $1,800 for the 2020-2021 school year. The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development (MDHEWD) was forced to cut award amounts when the program’s budget was reduced by $10 million.
“I would love to know why during a pandemic somebody was like, ‘You know what college students need? Less money,’” Broeker said.
Deputy Commissioner of Operations for MDHEWD Leroy Wade said while the reduction is a difficult situation to face, he understands why the funds were decreased. He explained Missouri’s revenue is affected primarily by sales tax and individual income tax. When the state’s economy took a downturn, the legislature and governor had to try to balance the budget.
“That clearly puts them in the position of having to make some pretty difficult decisions and sometimes financial aid programs are part of that, sometimes they aren’t. In this case they were,” Wade said. “The legislature reduced the appropriation by about $3.5 million and then the governor restricted about another [$6.5 million]. That is a big hit for a program of this size.”
For Broeker, the constitutional requirement to balance the state budget was not enough of an excuse to cut funding for higher education. Broeker has not looked at the state budget but they still thought the state could have found a different way to balance the budget.
“Judging on how the U.S. as a whole spends its budget, I have no doubt in my mind that we more than had enough money to give students who are seeking a higher education,” Broeker said.
Wade understands students’ frustrations. He said many students had already selected what college they planned to attend – expecting to receive the full $3,000 award. Without any extra funds, however, Wade said all he can do is try to explain the situation to parents and students who called after the MDHEWD announced the reduction in July.
For students who are struggling due to the reduction in Bright Flight, Wade recommended two steps. He suggested students look on Scholarship Central – a scholarship database focused on scholarships in St. Louis and Missouri – for scholarship opportunities.
He also encouraged students to reach out to the financial aid offices at their university.
“They may know of some underutilized scholarship. They may have information that they can assist with,” Wade said. “They are experts in this area and are certainly willing to work with students to try and find those kinds of resources.”
Broeker was unsure Webster would be able to offer any extra resources to students. They also wondered why Webster did not send out any emails directly informing recipients of the cut to Bright Flight.
Webster University declined an interview discussing Bright Flight at this time. However, an email from Director of Public Relations Patrick Giblin encouraged any student facing financial hardship to reach out to the financial aid office.
Despite the reduction, Wade is hopeful looking into the future. He said the MDHEWD is planning on going to the legislature for a supplemental appropriation. Wade also said if the sales tax revenue increases, the governor could undo restrictions or the legislature could offer the extra revenue to MDHEWD.
“There is no obligation that [the legislature] would send it to this program,” Wade said. “I think it is a good way to spend the money obviously but we will just have to wait and see what kinds of decisions they make.”
If MDHEWD were to receive adequate funds for Bright Flight in the future, Wade said the department would consider providing students the $1,200 they have lost.
While Broeker felt frustrated by the situation, they said their work study position should be able to fill the financial gap. Nevertheless, Broeker added that every source of income is important right now.
“This is not a do or die change for me and I am privileged in that way,” Broeker said. “I really hurt and I really feel for students who might not be able to go to Webster or any college that they love or chose because of this because of a simple budget choice.”
Wade could only recall one other time the budget for Bright Flight was cut. He said their budget was also reduced due to the Great Recession. According to Wade, the current situation has presented the MDHEWD with different challenges, but he added the MDHEWD will continue to work with students.
“We can’t always fulfill all their expectations but I can guarantee we are working hard to do the best we can,” Wade said.