Tuition-assistance program moving quickly through legislature

Gov. Mike Parson meets with education and business leaders Thursday to discuss the latest on his proposed Fast Track tuition-assistance program. Two House committees approved it this week with no dissenting votes. (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday said he's pleased with the progress of a proposal meant to cover tuition costs for older college students.

Legislation to create the program, known as Fast Track, cleared two House committees this week without any opposing votes. The program, which Parson called for in his State of the State address, would cover about two years of tuition for adults who lack college degrees and want to go back to school to earn them.

Following an afternoon roundtable discussion with business and education leaders, Parson said although Missouri's high school graduation rate is strong, the state continues to lag in post-secondary education.

"The simple reality is that post-secondary education is required for many jobs in the 21st century, and we have fallen behind here in Missouri in preparing our people for the demands of the workforce," he said.

Under the current proposal before lawmakers, Fast Track would be available to anyone age 25 or older who makes $80,000 a year or less and does not have a college degree. Fast Track grants would cover all tuition and fees remaining after a student has applied other governmental aid, including federal and state student aid. The tuition assistance would end once a student earned a bachelor's degree or completed four semesters, whichever occurs first.

Shawn Strong, the president of State Technical College of Missouri, said financial hurdles are among the chief obstacles people face in deciding whether or not to go back to school.

"Our students are full-time. They come in, they start at 8 in the morning and go until the middle of the afternoon, and a working adult just can't do that," he said.

Strong said making aid available might make the idea of going back to school in an effort to improve a person's long-term career prospects more enticing. Right now, he said adults aged 25 and older account for a little less than 7 percent of his students. If Fast Track passes, he said that figure could rise to 10-15 percent.

Democrats in both chambers have raised concerns about the program, currently projected to cost $22.2 million, taking money away from core higher education funding. They also have questioned the program's minimum age of 25. House Minority Leader Crystal Quade has said Missouri has many students under that age cutoff who could use the money to cover their college tuition. Parson on Thursday said he is open to the idea of lowering the minimum age for Fast Track to 20, as some have proposed.

The Fast Track bill has not yet reached the full House floor. A Senate committee heard similar legislation last week but has not yet voted on it.

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