Missouri rolls out “Fast Track” financial aid program

(Missourinet) The state’s new financial aid program is up and running. Fast Track is designed to address Missouri’s workforce needs by covering the full cost of schooling for adults pursuing a certificate, bachelor’s degree or an industry-recognized credential in a high demand field.

Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development Deputy Commissioner Leroy Wade tells Missourinet the new program aims to get more adults to participate in the state’s workforce in a more dynamic way.

“It’s going to allow us to assist a population that we’ve recognized as one that we need to really pay more attention to, but we haven’t had the mechanism to do that,” he says.

Fast Track has been a priority for Gov. Mike Parson, who has made workforce development a focus of his administration. During legislative debate in May about the program, Parson and Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon said Fast Track was also a top priority for General Motors to get a possible $1 billion expansion at its plant in eastern Missouri’s Wentzville. During Fast Track’s rollout on Friday in southern Missouri’s West Plains, he said the program is the first step in growing and improving Missouri’s workforce.

Some of the key requirements include a maximum household adjusted gross income of $80,000 per year if filing taxes jointly or $40,000 annually for a single income household. Those awarded a grant must work in Missouri for three calendar years or the grant would convert to an interest-bearing loan the student would have to repay.

“The idea is that, if the state is going to step in and help financially for you to complete this workforce-related program, then you kind of have an obligation to be a part of the Missouri workforce at least for that three year period,” Wade says.

Wade says Fast Track is primarily for adults 25 years or older, but there are provisions for those younger than 25 to access the program if they have been out of education for at least two years.

Unlike many financial aid programs, part-time students could be eligible for Fast Track if they are enrolled in at least six credit hours.

Wade says the program’s initial rollout has a primary focus.

“We’re kind of taking a tiered approach, I guess I would say. It is primarily focused on programs that are STEM or STEM related,” he says. “When I talk about STEM, that’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In addition, because teacher education serves such a foundational purpose in education, even in those STEM areas, a number of teacher education programs are also eligible. A number of the allied health fields are included – nursing and things related to that are a part of it, teacher education, agriculture, engineering, engineering technology, some of the skilled trades. As the program matures, probably later this year or early next year, we’ll begin to add some additional program areas.”

Wade says several Missouri colleges and universities are participating in Fast Track.

“It will only include public institutions. So any public community college, any of our public four-year institutions, public vocational technical schools will all be eligible in this initial rollout. Our hope is, and the way the statute is structured, that in the future, we will include all of the institutions that are included in our state aid programs,” says Wade.

Fast Track launched around the first week of August. Three or so weeks in, Wade says the state already has received about 150 applications. The state plans to begin awarding the grants in October.

“The general intent of the program is that we would cover any gap in a student’s tuition and fee bill that is not covered by other financial aid,” Wade says. “So, the amount that an individual student will receive will vary, depending on what other financial aid they’re eligible for and how well that covers their tuition and fee costs. In addition, for any students, and in some instances this is going to occur, where other financial aid covers their full tuition and fee amount, they will be eligible for an award anyway, up to $500 to help cover other kinds of costs. In a number of these programs, tool costs, for example, can run very high. Books and supplies and those kinds of things can really be a cost barrier for individuals.”

The grants are distributed each academic year. So, students interested in getting grants each year they are in school would have to apply annually.

“The actual payment will go directly to the institution and then they will apply that to the student’s account. It’s not like we’re going to send a check directly to a student,” says Wade.

The Missouri Legislature has budgeted $10 million in funding for the program this first year. Once the funding is gone, no more grants will be awarded in 2019.

“As with all financial aid programs, it’s subject to appropriation. We don’t have an unlimited amount of money,” he says.

For more information about the program, click here.

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