U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is venturing out across Missouri to gather input and garner public support about making college less expensive.
The Democratic senator kicked off a statewide tour on college affordability at Metro High School in St. Louis. She spent time Monday morning talking with college administrators from local institutions -- including Washington University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Webster University and St. Louis Community College.
Before talking with members of her roundtable, McCaskill said the goal of her tour was relatively straight-forward: Figuring out “how we get more kids into college or trained for a high-paying job in a way that is affordable.”
“We want to look at the financing of student loans and how much kids are paying and what interest rates they’re paying and what we can do about that,” McCaskill said. “We want to look at Pell grants. We want to look at accountability at both not-for-profit and for-profit institutions. Are these students getting a good value for the money that they are spending – and in many instances, the money that they are spending that they have borrowed?”
One of the ideas McCaskill has embraced is allowing students to refinance their college loans. The U.S. Senate considered that idea back in 2014, but it fell apart after, among other things, Republicans opposed how the proposal would be funded.
But McCaskill said it doesn’t make a lot of sense for students to “have to be paying a higher-than-market interest to the government for their student loans.”
“I mean, that’s what’s really offense about this is the profit that’s being made on the backs of these kids as they’re struggling as they’re getting out of school is going to the United States government,” McCaskill said. “That is I think absolutely unacceptable. And that’s why I’m one of the original co-sponsors of a bill that would allow students to refinance student loans at the current market rate, which save many of them hundreds of dollars every single month. Which they could then use to build a household, to buy a car, to save for a down payment and to contribute other ways in the community and to the economy.”
Besides dealing with the configurations of student loans, McCaskill said she was heartened that the Department of Education was requiring for-profit schools to show the percentage of disposable income graduates spend to pay off loans. She said she also supports showcasing more graduation and financial information about not-for-profit institutions.
“Americans are pretty good shoppers. And I think families and young people would be better shoppers if they could get at this information,” McCaskill said. “What are your graduation rates? What are your employment rates after graduation? What kind of money are these graduates making? And what percentage of that income is going to a student loan?”
But McCaskill was less enthusiastic about one of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ key platform planks: Tuition-free college.
McCaskill – a strong supporter of Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton -- said the idea that “we can make all colleges free for everyone is one of the many ideas that Bernie Sanders has that probably is not realistic.”
“It sounds great. It really sounds great,” McCaskill said. “But if you look at what it would take to do that in terms of tax increases, it’s not something that I see ever seeing the light of day in Washington. I do think we can work on the president’s proposal and Sen. Clinton’s proposal however.”
She went onto say that lawmakers should “focus on those who need help.”
“I think we should focus on the first two years at a community college to give someone the entry into a potential four-year degree or the technical skills that they need in today’s workplace,” she said.
(For his part, Sanders tried to counter skepticism about his tuition-free college plan during a speech in St. Charles. “I will tell you how we are going to pay for it,” he said. “Wall Street was bailed by Congress. I believe that now is the time to impose a tax on Wall Street speculation. Now is the time for Wall Street to help the American middle class.”)
McCaskill also fielded a question from a reporter about Mizzou’s enrollment and state funding woes. The Missouri House’s budget proposal imposes a cut to the University of Missouri-Columbia, which has endured a spate of high-profile controversies in recent months.
“I think that Mizzou has a couple of problems,” she said. “One is Illinois has lowered its ACT requirement for admission. So one of the places that we’ve recruited a lot of places to Mizzou is out of Illinois. And now they have made it easier to get into the state institutions in Illinois, which puts more pressure on the University of Missouri. You add that to the fact that enrollment has been stagnant for the last few years. High school graduation classes are smaller. And then you add on top of that the political grandstanding that’s gone over the controversies that occurred at Mizzou last year.”
She also said there are “way too many elected officials in Jefferson City that are trying to score political points over the controversies at Mizzou.”
“And the idea that they’re going to continue down that path when we are 20 percent below the rest of the country in terms of the national average of the support we give higher ed?” she added. “I mean, I don’t expect Missouri to be number one at supporting higher education. But it’s embarrassing that we’re 20 percent below the national average.”
Loving the haters
McCaskill’s tour comes nearly a month after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told reporters last week that her doctors told her that her prognosis is “very good.” And said on Monday that she “wanted to get back out there and get to work.”
“I’m not good at not being at full speed,” she said.
In addition to having a higher energy level as of late, McCaskill made a point to note how she heard well wishes from “thousands of Missourians.” And some kind comments, she said, have come from people who aren’t typically that nice to her.
“I’m now up to thousands of Missourians who have reached out. And most of them are strangers,” she said. “And they said wonderful, kind things. I want to particularly say thank you to all my haters on Twitter who typically are chewing on me and calling me [a] fat, ugly communist. And now, they’re all saying we hope you feel better. So there’s even love coming from the haters around my diagnosis, which has really been uplifting.”
McCaskill received treatment at the Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, which she called an “amazing facility with really high-quality doctors, oncologists and nurses.” She also said that people with similar diagnoses should “trust your doctors about what is best and what is right.”
“And know that particularly if you have an early diagnosis of breast cancer if you’re a woman, we are light years ahead of where we were 10 or 20 years ago,” McCaskill said. “And some of that is because of federal dollars that have been invested in research. I think it’s important when you have these moments to realize that all these advancements didn’t just come through the private sector.”