If you’ve ever thought about going to college or finishing your degree, a new state grant might help you get started.

The Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant is now offered at a selection of higher education institutions across the state. The program hopes to increase employment in high-demand careers and the percentage of working-age adults with higher education by offering financial assistance to those seeking degrees, certificates or industry-recognized credentials.

“There are people who go a different direction in their life, perhaps they didn’t have opportunities to pursue higher education. And I think this is a great way to get them thinking about that,” said Lynn Stichnote, the interim director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri. “And if that contributes to the economic engine of Missouri, that’s even better.”

Fast Track is available to prospective students in Missouri older than 25 or those who have not been enrolled in school within the last two years. Students must also have an annual salary of less than $80,000 when filing jointly, or $40,000 for others, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development’s website.

Additionally, applicants cannot have received a bachelor’s degree from another institution, be in default on a federal loan or have a criminal record that would prevent them from receiving federal aid.

Prospective students must select a program at an institution from a pre-approved list available on the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development’s website. Students must also submit a Fast Track application and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to confirm eligibility.

The Fast Track grant will cover any remaining balance that is not initially paid by other grants and scholarships given through FAFSA. This balance includes tuition, fees and books and tools specific to the approved program courses, according to Becky Dunn, the assistant commissioner for strategic communications for the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.

If a student’s tuition is completely covered by other sources, then the Fast Track grant would award them up to $500 per semester to help pay for education-related costs. The grant otherwise does not cover housing or other living expenses.

Students will be able to receive funding toward a degree, certificate or other industry-recognized credential from the Fast Track grant as long as they remain enrolled at least half-time each semester. The grant will cover four semesters or the equivalent.

Dunn said the program provides a great opportunity for adults who are getting started in their education or trying to finish a degree.

“If you think about an adult changing their life, it requires a lot of sacrifice,” said Dunn. “You say, ‘I’m gonna try school, or try school again, or sacrifice time with my family to balance this and make this happen.’ It’s really a big deal.”

There are 27 institutions in Missouri partnering with Fast Track for the 2019-2020 school year. The Department’s website lists the approved programs that they consider to be in high demand. These include engineering, education,information technology and healthcare careers. Partner schools include MU, Moberly Area Community College and Lincoln University.

Fast Track was spearheaded by Gov. Mike Parson as part of his workforce development strategy. The grant aims to help Missouri reach its goal of having 60% of adults hold a degree or certificate by 2025. According to the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, the percentage reached 52.6% in 2018.

The department’s website also says that after a student who received Fast Track funding graduates, they will be required to find employment in their field of study within 12 months of finishing school and keep that employment in Missouri for three years while maintaining residency. If a student fails to meet these specifications, the grant money will turn into a loan that they will repay with interest.

In order to keep students informed of the Fast Track’s responsibilities, Dunn says they are determined to arm prospective students with the financial literacy needed to successfully complete the program by providing loan counseling resources.

Additionally, individual institutions often provide their own financial aid counseling to incoming students. Amy Hager, the director of financial aid at Moberly Area Community College, predicts that their offices will offer counseling sessions for Fast Track. Hager wants to make sure participants understand that if they don’t meet certain conditions, the grant turns into a loan that must be repaid.

“It’s so easy to forget and to miss things in that type of online environment, but when you see somebody face to face, maybe there’s more of an impact,” Hager said. “Because the details of it are pretty intense… there’s a lot of concerns, also, for those recipients if they don’t fully understand it.”

As the financial aid office at MU prepares for Fast Track, Stichnote says they are collaborating with the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.

“We realize that making college affordable isn’t just about what comes out of Mizzou, it’s about the state programs, it’s about not-for-profits that provide support,” Stichnote said. “So we really make a big effort to stay educated on those things.”

The application for the Fast Track became available Aug. 5. Those interested in the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant are encouraged to find more information on the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development’s website, which includes a complete list of partnered institutions, approved programs and the grant’s application.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

  • Assistant city editor for the public health and safety beat. I am a second year graduate student studying public policy journalism. You can reach me at mne275@umsystem.edu or on Twitter @MikaylaEasley

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