State Scholarships Tilt Playing Field Against MU in SEC

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COLUMBIA - A comparative shortage of state-paid scholarships is affecting Mizzou's ability to recruit in sports like baseball, softball, track and field, soccer, and wrestling. These scholarships are not the ones that go to Mizzou basketball and football, but instead are academic scholarships that can go to any students - including top recruits for other sports.

More than two years has passed since Mizzou announced its entry in the SEC. While Mizzou has moved to a top competitive position in the marquee conference sports, football and basketball, those two years have not brought the school to the same point as other SEC institutions when it comes to recruiting across other sports.

Mizzou Basketball entered the league as one of the top contenders, thanks to Big 12 competition. Mizzou Softball is a great match against southern teams who play year round. And then there's the Mizzou football team, which head coach Gary Pinkel took to a conference championship game int the toughest football conference in the nation - coming back from a dismal first season in the SEC.

"When we made this decision to go be part of the SEC and all the benefits that accrued by going there, that's an accrual to the entire state of Missouri," Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden said.

But there remains an underlying issue with the University of Missouri as a whole, not just athletics, that results in a not-so-even playing field. That issue deals with Missouri, the state.

What do most people say is the cause of all problems in the world? Money. And it's no different in this case. The problem here: the scholarships Missouri provides for state universities, specifically Mizzou.

State paid scholarships are affecting athletes, maybe even a team's record.

Republican State Representative Caleb Rowden can see where Missouri is at fault for this issue.

"It does affect (softball) Coach Earleywine, it does affect all those guys, (baseball coach) Tim Jamieson, and everybody else," Rowden said. "I mean it affects them all."

This is definitely an issue for the coaches of sports like baseball, soccer, track and field, softball -the smaller sports at Mizzou. KOMU 8 News reached out to all these coaches, but Mizzou Athletics denied that request to hear its side of the story.

"We're in the SEC," Rowden said. "It's a different beast, and I think we have to be mindful of that."

But with the numbers down on paper, it is not difficult to see the problem.

Missouri offers the A+ Scholarship, from which a student is awarded $158 a credit hour. That amounts to about $2,000 for a student enrolled in 15 credit hours. But, University of Missouri students can't use that scholarship because it's just for two-year schools. Missouri also offers the Bright Flight Program Scholarship. An in-state student has to score in the neighborhood of a 31 on his or her ACT to get $2,500 per year. A student could score a 30 on the ACT and receive less. But the state is not funding this part of the scholarship this year due to the budget. Then there's Access Missouri, which is a financial assistance program and a need-based scholarship. That means the family of the student must have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $12,000 a year, or less. If in-state students are eligible for Access Missouri, they will receive $1,000 per year.

But the story is much different in other SEC states. At LSU, in-state students can get the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) scholarship from the state of Louisiana. Students must score a 27 on their ACT and have a 3.0 GPA to receive the highest award called the Honors Award. There are two other different levels students can also get. If a student is eligible for the Honors Award, he or she can get $3,338 per semester.

Arkansas offers the Academic Challenge scholarship, the biggest challenge for in-state students who are eligible is having at least a 2.5 GPA and scoring at least a 19 on the ACT. Once a student meets these requirements, he or she can earn up to $5,000 per year.

At Georgia, in-state students can get money from the Zell Miller Scholarship. To be eligible, a high school graduate must have at least a 3.7 GPA and a 26 on the ACT. With this scholarship, a student can receive more than $32,000 in four years at Georgia. Georgia also offers the Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally (HOPE) scholarship to Georgia students who are eligible. The requirements for the HOPE Scholarship are a 3.0 GPA, and a 27 ACT score. Then, a student can earn up to $3,276.90 per semester. Students at Georgia can receive the Zell Miller Scholarship, or the HOPE scholarship, not both.

Mississippi offers the Mississippi Tuition Assistant Grant to four year schools like Ole Miss, which is worth $5,000 per year for freshman and sophomores and $1,000 per year for juniors and seniors, if an in-state student scores 15 on the ACT and has at least a 2.5 GPA.

"I do think that we're going to have to figure out a way to, to compete with what Alabama offers and what Georgia offers," Rowden said. "It's pretty robust, I mean it really is."

"We've heard from some of the coaches at Mizzou, that they are at a recruiting disadvantage," MU Financial Aid Director Nick Prewett said. "It's very difficult to recruit students to Mizzou from the state of Georgia or maybe from the state of Louisiana because the instate scholarship offers from those schools can be supplemented with those state scholarships."

One way SEC states fund these grants and scholarships is through consumer spending.

"One of the things that the SEC schools are really kind of known for are lottery scholarships," Prewett said. "A lot of the states devote a substantial portion of their lottery money toward higher education scholarships."

Rowden said Missouri uses most of its lottery money to fund K-12 education.

Mizzou Baseball gets the short end of the stick because the NCAA gives Division 1 baseball teams 11.7 scholarships to spend on no more than 25 players. Mizzou has 35 players listed on its roster. According to the NCAA, each player on athletic scholarship must receive at least a 25 percent scholarship. It's very difficult for Mizzou baseball coaches to get commits from states like Louisiana because schools like LSU have a lot of state scholarships which coaches use to give players a greater scholarship than Mizzou would offer - if that player meets the in-state scholarship requirements.

Rowden said he thinks Mizzou is worth spending money on.

"The university is one of, if not the best, features of our state," Rowden said. "And so, number one you have to get guys and gals around that state and the legislature to buy into that view and that way of thinking."

To get people to buy into that view, especially other state representatives, Rowden said educating those representatives about the problem is a key aspect to the solution.

"Part of it in Jeff City will be a bit of an education process," Rowden said. "Some folks just won't, won't really recognize what a jump from one conference to another means other than maybe in that athletic realm."

Other than educating people, Rowden said it's also important to look at the big picture and realize how much each SEC state is worth.

"We're never going to be Texas, We're never going to be Florida," Rowden said. "But, we do have what we have, and we've got some good things."

But, higher education is not the only institution looking for state money.

"Things like the public defender, things like highways, Medicaid programs," Democrat State Representative Stephen Webber said. "I mean there's a lot of competing interests, and so everybody wants to expand access to college. But, that competes against many other important programs as well."    

But if Rowden has his way, Mizzou would be getting those things as well.

"I think that we would be missing the mark if we didn't, you know put this all into that light," Rowden said. "So I think we have some work to do. I think we're coming out of 2008 dip, and I think we're on a good trajectory, I think the attitude and the appetite to really take a good, hard look at education funding is there."

"So my hope would be is the state of Missouri would look at that and say what are the things we can be doing to support the University of Missouri so that we can make sure that we're putting everybody on an even playing field," Alden said. "That would be my message."

Rowden said he and his colleagues are having conversations about the topic and are ready to start planning after January's state of the state address from Governor Jay Nixon.

"I do think that we would be selling ourselves short and selling the state short and selling our university short if we didn't put it into this context and realize that you know if we find a way to better equip our university to provide better scholarships, more robust scholarships to folks coming in whether it be on academic, whether it's Bright Flight, whether it's for athletic scholarship, Rowden said. "You know that just makes everything rise."

And with Mizzou athletic teams rising to the challenge in the SEC, many coaches and athletes said it's time for the state to rise to the challenge of leveling the playing field.