State committee seeks to relieve Missouri student loan debt

JEFFERSON CITY — State legislators are looking to tackle Missouri’s enormous student debt.

According to the Project on Student Debt conducted by the Institute for College Access & Success, 57 percent of Missouri college students graduated with student loans in 2016. The average amount of the debt was $27,532.

Student debt is the second largest form of debt in the U.S., according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Four spokespeople from MU, Webster University, Park University and Central Methodist University testified in front of the House Subcommittee on Student Debt Relief Tuesday afternoon, offering potential remedies to Missouri’s student debt problem.

Erik Bergrud, associate vice president of external relations at Park University, suggested establishing a statewide work-study program that would partially cover debt and provide students relevant work experience throughout their college years.

Bergrud pointed to Park University’s own work-study program, which allows students work for 20 hours a week on campus in exchange for free tuition.

“They get their tuition, room and board on campus, but they have to work and be engaged in community or campus,” Bergurd said.

In the last legislative session, committee member Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, sponsored a House bill that would have started a work-study program, but it never became law.

Keri Gilbert, a financial aid advisor at MU, said a statewide work-study program and an expanded Access Missouri Program, a need-based scholarship, would help the neediest students and further reduce the overall student loan debt.

Committee Chairman Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, said no bill proposal targeting debt is in the works for the next year, when Missouri’s higher education will face the budget cuts signed by Gov. Eric Greitens earlier this year.

“Where I stand, we need to do everything we can uphold our funding to our universities and to higher education,” Rep. Andrews said. “It will be interesting to see what happens in the next budget year.”

In August, Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the state’s college savings plan called MOST 529 — a statewide program that offers federal and state tax benefits including deferred income tax on earnings.

“At a time when student loan debt is skyrocketing, saving for higher education expenses has never been more important,” Schmitt wrote in an email. “The more parents put away now, the less their kids will have to borrow in student loans in the future.”

The committee hopes to hear more from Missouri’s higher education sector through future hearings, with the next hearing scheduled for November.

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