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McCaskill roundtable addresses higher education financial aid reform

Friday, October 23, 2009 | 1:56 p.m. CDT; updated 1:54 p.m. CST, Friday, November 13, 2009
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaks to an audience of financial aid counselors, students and parents from universities and public school districts across the state via teleconference at an education roundtable in MU's Ellis Library on Friday. The roundtable allowed Missouri residents to discuss their financial aid concerns with the senator.

COLUMBIA — Federal financial aid programs are too complicated and often leave students and parents under served. Such was the takeaway from a roundtable discussion Friday hosted by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and involving students, parents and financial aid officials from around the state.

McCaskill was on hand to gather input ahead of legislative debate in the U.S. Senate on financial aid reform. The senator said she thought a bill would be debated but probably not passed before the end of the year, adding that the Senate already has a lot on its plate.

"One of the reasons I'm excited to be here is that we're not going to talk about health care," McCaskill said, drawing laughter.

Introducing the forum, McCaskill said financial aid reform is important if higher education is going to be available to everyone. "We can't lose sight of the fact that our most important resources are young people," she said.

McCaskill conversed with nearly 70 participants from a video conference room in Ellis Library at MU. The forum connected participants in Kansas City, St. Louis, Rolla and Columbia via a new high-tech conferencing system. The discussion focused on the various student loan programs available and the challenges they present for students, families and school officials.

Almost everyone who spoke at the event emphasized the need to simplify the application process, especially with regard to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Jan Brandow, director of financial aid at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the application itself is an obstacle for many families. "One hundred questions makes you feel like there is a barrier before you even begin the process," she said.

The FAFSA application has 106 questions and is used to determine a student's eligibility for federal student loans based on the financial situations of students and their families.

"Make no mistake, the FAFSA is complicated," said Tony Georges, director of financial aid at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It turns a family upside-down and shakes all of the information out of them."

Several in attendance said the challenges were often greatest for those approaching student loans for the first time.

Paula Coyote Schaff, lead counselor in the Kansas City, Mo., School District, said many students in her district are the first in their families to go to college. For many of those students, she said, parental involvement is low, and filling out the FAFSA "is an incredible task."

Amanda Shelton was at the roundtable as a student representative from MU. The 21-year-old junior is senate speaker for the Missouri Students Association and is majoring in international studies. She told the gathering about her frustration with the application process, saying she received financial aid during her first year at MU but wasn't eligible for as much money the next year even though her parents had since filed for bankruptcy.

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Despite her difficulties navigating the process, Shelton said she thought there needed to be more emphasis on grants, scholarships and work study programs. "I was surprised to hear so much about loans and not so much about grants and scholarships," she said.

Citing her experience in a work study position at University Hospital, Shelton said she thought there should be more funding available for programs that encouraged students to work on campus rather than at places like retail clothing stores. "You can't go to the mall and get a job researching muscular dystrophy," she said.

MU Financial Aid Director Jim Brooks said he was pleased with the forum. "I think we had a great exchange," Brooks said. "It's great that she (McCaskill) was willing to listen."

Asked what he thought was the most pressing issue with regard to potential reform, Brooks cited something mentioned in passing at the roundtable. "I would love to see interest rates decrease," he said. "Rates for student loans are still in the 6 to 7 percent range whereas things like home loans are often lower."

After the roundtable, McCaskill said that among the insights she took from the discussion was the need to educate families and promote community involvement.

"Parents don't like to be intimidated in front of their children," she said, echoing a comment made by a parent in attendance. McCaskill said community organizations could do a lot to help parents and students through the process.

McCaskill said she agreed with those who want to simplify the application process. She said her office might organize a focus group with students, parents and financial aid administrators to make suggestions to improve the application.

The financial aid roundtable was the first high-profile event to use the new conference system. The UM telepresence system, manufactured by Cisco Systems Inc., uses high-definition video and audio to connect four campuses across the state.

McCaskill was clearly impressed.

"I want to thank the university for letting us use this technology," she said. "I want this in my office."


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