McCaskill says Missouri A+ Scholarship should be a model for the nation

By:  Rudi Keller
Columbia Daily Tribune

A national program modeled on Missouri’s A+ Scholarship could ease the burden of college debt, but the federal government can’t afford to provide free higher education to every student, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said Wednesday during a visit to Ashland.

Speaking to reporters before meeting with financial aid officials, students and parents in Ashland, McCaskill, D-Mo., praised the program that provides full coverage for tuition and fees at community colleges. Created in 1993, the program has been expanded in recent years to cover students from every high school who maintain a 2.5 grade point average and meet other requirements.

In the 2014-15 school year, 13,142 students took advantage of the program at a cost of $33.3 million. In the coming fiscal year, the program is expected to cost $37.5 million.

“I think there are ways the A+ program could even be improved, but that is a real bright shining light in Missouri higher education, and they deserve a lot of credit for developing that program, maintaining that program, because I know there was talk of doing away with it at one point, but I know that smarter heads prevailed,” McCaskill said.

McCaskill, who supports former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal for free college for all was too expensive.

“There is no question that some of the promises being made in this presidential campaign are unrealistic,” she said.

McCaskill is using the Easter recess to tour the state seeking information about college costs. At Souther Boone Elementary School, she heard that rising room and board rates are adding to the debt burden and that lack of transparency in pricing makes it difficult to compare schools.

“It is clear to me in all these conversations that room and board is a big, gaping problem,” McCaskill said.

Chris Felmlee, superintendent of the Southern Boone County School District, said about 80 percent of the graduating seniors from the district continue their education. The price of college is daunting, he said.

“When they realize it is going to cost $25,000 to attend” the University of Missouri, “that is like a huge rock crashing down on them,” he said.

The costs of specialized and professional programs are also difficult to meet, said Jazmyn Youngblood, a senior at Battle High School. She told McCaskill that she spent three weeks applying to colleges and wanted to attend MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She also checked out the cost of attending veterinary school overseas.

A college in London costs $2,000 more per year but is still cheaper overall, she said. “I can go to an international school in London and be finished in five years rather than eight,” she said.

The federal government can help students by allowing graduates to refinance their debt at market interest rates, she said. But state lawmakers must provide the support that keeps tuition and room and board costs down, she said.

And it is up to state lawmakers to provide the support for public colleges and universities that will keep tuition down, McCaskill said. Asked about proposed cuts to the University of Missouri, McCaskill noted that support for public higher education in Missouri is 20 percent below the national average.

“The University of Missouri has been cut, I believe, about 26 percent since 2008, and to make a political point they think it is a good idea to punish the university further?” McCaskill said. “So they’re punishing these young people? So they have to take out more loans?”