Area educational leaders, parents and students weighed in on college affordability and accessibility during a roundtable discussion with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) Monday at Washington High School.

McCaskill outlined broad goals for curbing rising college costs and ballooning student loan debt.

“We clearly have a huge problem — a crisis — I believe in this country, about college affordability,” McCaskill said. “I believe we have to fashion some public policy that addresses this crisis, and I would like to do it in a smart way.”

Roundtable participants included Dr. Kelle McCallum, associate principal at WHS, and Dr. Lori VanLeer, superintendent, both with the Washington School District, Dr. Steve Weinhold, superintendent, and Dr. Justin Tarte, director of teaching and learning, with the Union School District, Dr. Jon Bauer and Shelli Allen with East Central College, and students Clayton Walde and Alissa Bruckerhoff, and their mothers Debbie Walde and Laura Bruckerhoff, who also is associate principal at Washington Middle School.

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

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.

McCaskill, along with several of her Senate colleagues, wrote a joint letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year highlighting the issue of college affordability.

Responsible borrowing, transitions from high school to college, and default rates all were topics of conversation.

Borrowing Too Much

Allen, who serves as vice president of student development at ECC, said students are allowed to borrow too much compared to the average tuition at the two-year level.

The average student loan debt at the college is $13,587, while the average tuition is less than $1,200 per year.

“A degree that they could finish at the cost of $6,000 is costing them about $13,000,” she said. “The loan becomes the way they finance their lives.”

Additionally, 75 percent of the default students are those who did not complete their degree sequence.

Several participants said federal aid is a roadblock, especially first-generation students.

“It’s a process that is not intuitive in any way,” Allen said.

McCaskill said the Federal Application For Student Aid (FAFSA) has “been a mess for a long time.”

Bauer noted that institutions are essentially “punished” for their default rate when the institution cannot limit the borrowing up-front.

“It’s only fair to you. If you’re going to be punished at the back end, (we should) give you the discretion to limit the loans at the front end so you’re not penalized and therefore future students aren’t penalized,” McCaskill said.

Transition to College

McCaskill asked participants about the ability to take college level courses while still in high school.

While classes are offered, students aren’t able to access aid to pay for the classes until they graduate. If they have the A+ scholarship, which funds two years at a community college, they have to wait until they graduate.

“I believe we would have more students taking advantage of it if parents had an option to help pay for some of those costs up-front,” McCallum said.

VanLeer said if a student is able to do college level work, they should be able to access aid for that work.

McCaskill noted that the more quickly students can finish their degrees, the more likely they are to complete them.

“It seems to me that we ought to have more flexibility as to when you can access aid,” McCaskill said.

The tuition rate for high school students to take classes at East Central College is half of the regular tuition, but if students wait until they graduate they can take the same course at no cost if they have the A+ scholarship.

Bauer said the concern at the state level is diluting the A+ award.

McCaskill addressed the “gap” in funding and how high schools can help address that while students are still in school.

Other Policy Goals

McCaskill has cosponsored a bill that would allow refinancing student loan debt, the same way it can be done with a home mortgage.

Other goals include pushing institutions to improve graduation rates, as a significant portion of debt comes from students who drop out or take more than five years to graduate, boosting Pell grants and making them available during the summer and having stronger accountability and transparency so students know what they will need to pay.

McCaskill said she wants to continue federal funding for job training programs, which are slated to run out soon and work to create fixes to the 90-10 rule, which would include federal assistance for military personnel and veterans in the 90 percent cap in student aid funding at for-profit schools, to protect veterans from scams.