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OTC sees Fast Track grant popularity rise 

College’s student aid via program jumps 263% for 2022-23

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Officials at Ozarks Technical Community College saw student financial aid through the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant program increase 263% in the 2022-23 academic year, exceeding $420,000 distributed to 170 students.

It was a significant jump for OTC, as 52 students received aid in the 2021-22 academic year, totaling $115,846 through Fast Track, a financial aid program for adults that the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development administers. Statewide, over $2 million annually is available for applicants who are at least 25 years old or who have not attended high school or a postsecondary institution in the past two years, have not earned a bachelor’s degree and do not exceed income limits.

Like at OTC, student participation increased statewide in 2022-23, as 658 students received over $2.4 million in financial aid through Fast Track. The state’s student tally was a 68% increase from the prior academic year, with OTC students comprising roughly 25% of the total. The Springfield-based college has been a proponent of the program since its 2019 launch after Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 68 into law. Fast Track is designed to ensure college tuition and fees are fully covered for up to four semesters when combined with other governmental financial aid. The program’s household income limits are $80,000 per year, for joint tax filers, or $40,000, for any other tax status.

“We really saw this as a way to draw in adult learners because it just removed a huge barrier – the cost,” OTC spokesperson Mark Miller said. “That was even pre-pandemic, but you were still hearing about how employers could not find people to do these skilled labor jobs or shortage of nurses and things like that.”

The grants seek to help nontraditional students get degrees in high-demand fields, such as health care, advanced manufacturing and computer science. Fast Track financial aid currently is available at dozens of public colleges, universities and vocational-technical schools throughout the state. Students at over 50 schools received Fast Track aid during the 2022-23 academic year, including Springfield-area institutions such as Missouri State University, Drury University, Bolivar Technical College and Cox College, according to state data.

At 40 students, BTC had the second most recipients of aid locally through Fast Track last academic year, totaling $332,747. The medical college has Fast Track eligibility through its bachelor’s registered nurse to Bachelor of Science in nursing completion course, as well as its registered nurse and licensed practical nursing programs, according to Avril Pebworth, the college’s student resources and compliance officer.

Miller said OTC previously has promoted Fast Track through mass media but credits changes to the program in the 2022 legislative session as a key to its popularity increase. Among approved changes in Senate Bill 672, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, and signed into law by Parson, were eliminating the possibility of the grant being converted into a loan if residency and work requirements were not met and extending Fast Track through Aug. 28, 2029.

Peace of mind
Jordan Schreiber, director of student success at OTC, said the school previously hosted Fast Track informational sessions, and officials learned students were hung up on the idea they may have to pay back the aid they received.

“It felt like just another loan to them because there were these strict guidelines that they had to meet,” Schreiber said. “A lot of the students have already had some college experience. They’ve just never finished a degree. Some of them were coming to us with loan debt already.”

The legislative change was a very positive move on the state’s part, Schreiber said.

“For it to truly be a grant that doesn’t have the loan component just has provided a sense of peace to students and eased their minds. The state of Missouri is not going to come knocking at the door to collect on this as long as they’re using the grant and doing it in a way that’s going to help our workforce,” she said. “We don’t see people exploiting it. We see honest, hardworking people who are just looking for a way to move up.”

Finding aid
Kendra Crossley was among OTC students who made use of Fast Track for 2022-23. Crossley, a Cabool resident, commuted to the school’s Springfield campus for lab work as part of its occupational therapy assistant program, which is offered in a hybrid format. She graduated in May 2023 with an associate degree in applied science.

“I knew this was what I wanted to do, but to have the means to be able to do it was a little bit difficult,” Crossley said. “Fast Track was just the extra push that I needed to say, ‘OK, if I want to be able to do this profession, this is my opportunity. This is my window to be able to do something that I’m passionate about.’”

Crossley, who was hired in June as a certified occupational therapy assistant at Texas County Memorial Hospital in Houston, said she received $5,400 in aid through Fast Track over two semesters. During that time, she was a full-time student and stay-at-home mom with a newborn.

“Fast Track is how I got my career today,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without it.”

She learned about Fast Track through OTC’s financial aid department.

“I filled out a financial aid form online that would give me assistance into finding out what was available for me,” she said. “The person that I had talked to through financial aid was super helpful. Prior to then, I didn’t know a whole lot about it.”

Anne Gill, OTC’s director of state and institutional programs, said the school in fall 2022 began sharing Fast Track information when students met with admissions counselors to determine potential eligibility.

“It’s a little more of a real targeted one-to-one conversation that can really help to find those that are eligible right off the bat so that they will have the information and get the process started,” she said.

Gill said Fast Track student participation for this academic year looks to be on par with 2022-23, as 150 students received aid through the program in the fall. Spring semester enrollees are yet to be determined.

The Fast Track application is available electronically at the state’s financial aid portal, which is linked through DHEWD.mo.gov. Gill said the process is not as difficult as people might think.

“If they were just thinking about it on their own and they were worried that it might be like the (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, which has a terrible reputation for being very difficult, it’s really very simple,” she said. “They do have to upload a copy of their most recent tax return so that they can verify that they meet that income requirement.”

While Fast Track participation is growing, Miller said he’d like to see numbers higher at OTC –  and statewide.

“We think it could be more utilized. We’re the third-biggest community college system [in Missouri], so we have some of the highest number of programs that are Fast Track eligible,” he said. “Let’s find students who are maybe already in our system and see if they’re eligible for this.”

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