Last week, I met with hundreds of Missourians to discuss the crisis of ballooning college costs and student debt in our country.
I heard from first-generation college students navigating a complicated system on their own, kids from single-parent households struggling to meet financial reporting requirements, and community college students grateful for the opportunities that Missouri’s A+ program has given them.
I heard from parents wanting their kids to reach for the stars but afraid of the financial hurdles that come with a college education, and families trying to contribute to tuition while still paying off their own student debt. I heard from educators and administrators frustrated at having their hands tied by cumbersome bureaucracies, and technical schools committed to developing a strong, well-trained workforce.
And, without fail, each and every one of these conversations came back to the same thing — finding innovative, effective ways to make college more affordable and more accessible, while reducing the mountains of debt students face at graduation that strangle their economic opportunities. Longer ago than I’d like to admit, I worked my way through college and law school — and took out a modest amount of student loans. And I believe that education is something that we should have to work for and invest in personally. But higher education is a different world today, and nobody I met was asking for a hand-out — they were simply looking for the economic opportunities that are supposed to come with higher education.
With this in mind, I’m headed back to the Senate in the coming weeks to drill down on college affordability and help get Missouri students, families, and educators the resources they need to succeed — and here are just a few of the ways I think we can do that:
- Better refinancing options for graduates with student loan debt. How come someone can walk into a bank and refinance their mortgage, but not do the same with their student loans? We need to allow students to refinance loans at lower rates so that they can take control of their monthly interest and pay off their debt faster.
- Improved graduation rates. Something I heard consistently on my tour was that a significant portion of debt comes from students who don’t graduate or who take more than five years to graduate. Whether we’re increasing access to dual-enrollment opportunities or simply ensuring that students with a high school diploma are better equipped for their freshman year of college without extensive remedial coursework, we must make sure our education system is more effective and accountable.
- Boosts for Pell Grants. As the cost of living increases, so does the cost of going to college. Pell grants should be indexed to inflation to make sure that recipients are getting real financial support, and they should be available for more of the year (including summer semesters) to make sure students are able to graduate on-time.
- Stronger accountability, transparency, and financial literacy. Americans are excellent shoppers, and yet, there are fields (such as healthcare and higher education) where getting a straight answer on costs and financial obligations is nearly impossible. Families and students have a right to know what they are signing up for and what they can expect after graduation. As one financial aid counselor put it last week, “In May, these students are asking permission to use the restroom. In September, they’re signing legal documents for large sums of money.” We need to make sure Missourians have all the information they need to make the best decisions for their future.
- Continued federal funding for critical job training programs. To date, Missouri has benefited from more than $50 million in federal funds directed at community colleges to design education and training programs. These programs work closely with employers and industries that prepare workers for in-demand jobs in their region, such as healthcare, information technology, and manufacturing.
- More options when it comes to “hidden fees” in education. It’s not just tuition that makes college expensive. Competition among universities to attract the best students — along with student expectations for campus-life — lead to increased costs as campuses build state-of-the-art classrooms and dorms. Curriculum built around expensive textbooks that regularly release new versions force students to buy “New” instead of “Used” at significant cost. We must remember that students come from all backgrounds, whether we are designing a course curriculum for the semester or developing long-term plans for growth.
There is no better way for me to tackle the issues facing Missouri families than by hearing from them directly, which is why I am so grateful to everyone from St. Louis, Belton, Kansas City, St. Joseph, Cottleville, Nixa, Ashland, Cape Girardeau, and Washington, MO who came out to speak with me last week. With your input, we can — and must — reform our higher education system.