Decatur's Best and Brightest Initiative, which brings young professionals in STEM fields to the city by helping pay their student loans, will receive $120,000 from the state as part of a pilot scholarship program.

The funding was recently approved by state lawmakers to get recent college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to live in Decatur and the Demopolis area. A supplemental appropriations bill for the 2020 budget year included $240,000 from the state education budget for the pilot scholarship program that repays student loan debt. Marengo County was allocated the program's other $120,000.

The pilot program requires:

• The recipient have a STEM degree from an Alabama four-year institution;

• Be a new resident of either Decatur or Marengo County; and

• The recipient receive $3,000 a year and up to $15,000 over five years.

“Decatur had an existing program, and the Legislature felt it would be a good initiative to support,” said Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell. “The Legislature also wanted to have a similar pilot in the Black Belt region, and Marengo County was chosen to encourage persons with STEM credentials to migrate into that region.”

U.S. Bureau of Census information shows a decline in population in Decatur of about 1,341 people between 2010 and 2019. Marengo County lost about 2,185 residents in the same period.

“I have been concerned about the no-growth areas of the state,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said recently. “Generally speaking, other than a few pockets like Auburn-Opelika, Tuscaloosa, Madison and Limestone counties, Baldwin County and some suburb counties around Birmingham and Montgomery, our state growth has flatlined or declined.

“This plan could serve as a catalyst to recruit and keep STEM-qualified young people living in our state. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, building a targeted workforce that will put down roots in struggling areas and, hopefully, start a family, can pay many long-term dividends."

He said he expects the benefits of the program to exceed the cost.

“Once we get them invested in an Alabama community, it will pay many times over," Orr said. "In fact, I’ve seen a study finding that the taxes remitted can more than offset the cost of any student loan repayments. We have similar programs to get doctors and dentists to practice in rural communities that have been effective, and I trust this will have a similarly positive impact.”

Decatur's Best and Brightest program was launched in 2016. It has spent about $150,000 since inception, and all of that funding was provided by private support, according to John Joseph, executive director of the Decatur-Morgan County Entrepreneurial Center.

The Decatur program has awarded its competitive scholarships to 21 people.

“We have 18 that are still here. But a lot of them bring people with them,” Joseph said. A total of 31 people, including four children, now reside in Decatur because of the Best and Brightest.

The Decatur program will use the state allocation to supplement its private support. Joseph said the state funding will help develop data to share with other communities about what works and does not work in the recruitment program, expand marketing and offer more scholarships.

“From the beginning, we’ve had more applications every year than we’ve had available spots,” Joseph said. "All of us at The E-Center are excited for this program to be chosen to receive state funding as they look at how to expand talent recruitment and retention efforts at that level."

He said past recipients include employees at some of the Tennessee Valley’s larger aerospace companies.

“Some are joining smaller companies as well and helping grow them,” he said.

Educators are included if they teach STEM subjects.

“We just recruited a teacher who is teaching in Decatur City Schools,” Joseph said.

Orr said the Best and Brightest could be expanded in the future.

“If successful in the Black Belt and/or a no-growth city like Decatur, there’s no reason it can’t be expanded to similarly struggling mid-sized cities like Gadsden, Anniston (or) Florence, along with other Black Belt or rural counties,” he said.

Separately this legislative session, a bill from Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, would have created the Alabama STEM Council within the Alabama Department of Commerce Workforce Division to advise state leaders on ways to improve STEM-related education, career awareness and workforce development. The bill passed the House but ran out of time in the Senate when the session was shortened in response to COVID-19. However, $200,000 was allocated for the council in the 2021 education budget.

Collins on Monday said she will bring the bill back in the next session, but in the meantime has encouraged Gov. Kay Ivey’s office to move forward with the initiative through an executive amendment.

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