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Blunt Op-Ed in Joplin Globe: Putting Higher Education Within Reach of More Missouri Students

June 08, 2018

WASHINGTON – In a Joplin Globe op-ed, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Department of Education, highlights how year-round Pell Grants, restored in Blunt’s Labor/HHS Appropriations bill in FY2017, and other programs are enhancing college access, completion, and affordability for students in Missouri and across the nation. Following is Blunt’s op-ed:

College graduation season is an exciting time for thousands of Missouri students, who, with a diploma in hand, will see more opportunities and higher earnings at work. As chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Education, making sure more students are able to pursue a higher education has been one of my top priorities. In a recent visit to Joplin, I talked with students and faculty from Missouri Southern State University and Crowder College about the steps we’re taking to make college more affordable and accessible for Missourians.

One of the most important things our subcommittee has done to bring down student debt and help students stay on track for graduation is restore year-round Pell Grants. Pell Grants provide need-based assistance to college students and, unlike loans, do not need to be paid back. More than half of MSSU students and two-thirds of Crowder College students are eligible for Pell Grants. At all of the community colleges in our state, the full Pell Grant award covers the entire cost of tuition, books, and fees for in-district students.

However, prior to last year, many full-time students and some part-time students would exhaust their full Pell benefit after two semesters. If they chose to continue through the summer, or were part of a program that required summer classes, they would be on the hook for tuition and other costs that drive up student debt. That changed in May 2017, when President Donald Trump signed into law a government funding bill that made students eligible to receive a third Pell Grant during the year. Year-round Pell is expected to help approximately one million students annually, including around 20,000 in Missouri, stay continuously enrolled throughout the year, complete their program or degree sooner, enter or re-enter the workforce faster, and graduate with less debt.

To understand what year-round Pell Grants will mean for students, and their ability to complete their education, consider this. Only a little more than half of students who enroll for the first time in two and four-year degree programs complete their degree within six years. Students enrolled full-time complete their degrees at a significantly higher rate of 76 percent.

Not every student can go to college full-time, or take the required credits per semester needed to complete college on time. Some students, especially low-income and non-traditional students who also work or care for children, can only take two or three classes per semester, or the equivalent. Giving students the flexibility to take courses for a third semester will help them keep pace with full-time students and lessen the possibility that they won’t return to the classroom in the fall.

The latest government funding bill, which was signed into law in March, not only continued year-round Pell, but also increased the maximum Pell Grant from $5,920 this school year to $6,095 next year.

Our subcommittee has also worked to provide additional support for first-generation, non-traditional, and low-income students through TRIO programs. These programs provide targeted services for students as early as middle school, and through high school, college, and graduate school. For example, MSSU’s Project Stay is a TRIO program that offers academic advising, priority enrollment, counseling, one-on-one tutoring, and other services aimed at increasing graduation rates. Nationwide, students who participate in student support services have higher retention rates, earn more credits per year, and maintain higher grade point averages. The government funding bill for 2018 provided a $60 million increase for TRIO programs.

As a first-generation college graduate, and a former history teacher and university president, I know firsthand how important it is to prioritize federal resources for programs that increase college access, completion, and affordability. I encourage students in the Joplin area, from grade school through grad school, to learn more about the programs and grants available to them to put a higher education within reach. I congratulate all of our recent Missouri graduates, and look forward to seeing more caps in the air next year.

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