Missouri school officials talk college affordability in Ashland

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ASHLAND - Missouri college officials met with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) Wednesday afternoon at Southern Boone Elementary School. The conversation centered on their schools' financial status involving tuition. 

The visit is part of McCaskill's college affordability tour, aiming to figure out how to make universities and colleges in Missouri more affordable and accessible. 

She said she thinks Missouri hasn't gotten as far as it should on college affordability since the Great Recession. However, she said she had to "give props" to the legislature and Missouri government on the A+ Schools scholarship program.

"The A+ Program, I've heard over and over again on this tour how important it is to so many young people," McCaskill said. "To do the right thing, to do well and then be rewarded with two years of community college." 

McCaskill said the problem with the A+ Program is that someone who doesn't have a community college in their community, they have additional costs of having to go somewhere else to try to access those benefits. 

"A lot of the institutions in the state of Missouri don't give you anything if you're A+," she said. "Only the community colleges are required to." 

The senator said she thinks there are ways the A+ Program can be improved. 

"But, that is a really bright shining light in Missouri higher education," McCaskill said. 

Rock Bridge High School Principal Jen Rukstad said college affordability has always been an issue. 

"I think it does change and, certainly, the cost of college is going up," Rukstad said. "With the recent economy in the last five to 10 years, it is a struggle for some families to make those decisions, to be able to pay for college." 

Rukstad said she and her staff encourage students with the A+ Schools Program. 

"That can help defray the cost of college," she said. 

Rukstad said she also encourages families to apply for federal aid, so parents can know what kind of support they can qualify for. 

"Student loans are an option," Rukstad said. "But, that is something to be very careful with." 

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, the average debt for a Missouri graduate of a public four-year institution or private non-profit four-year institution is $25,844. The proportion of Missouri graduates from those institutions with debt is 59 percent, the study says.

Missouri ranks 33rd in the nation in terms of how much debt students graduate with, and 31st in the nation in terms of how many students graduate with debt.