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State officials seek longer commitment for Fast Track

Grant program is set to sunset in August

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The clock is ticking on the lifespan for the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, a financial aid program for adults aimed at addressing employment needs.

However, state officials are advocating for the program’s continuation beyond its scheduled sunset in August. Missouri Workforce Development Director Mardy Leathers spoke about the program during a Jan. 20 Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce event focused on workforce challenges. The event, originally planned as an in-person gathering, was moved online amid rising COVID-19 cases.

“We think it’s strategically positioned to help adults skill up and expand across in-demand areas,” he said of the program launched in July 2019 after Gov. Mike Parson signed Senate Bill 68 into law.

During Parson’s Jan. 19 State of the State address, the governor called for the program to be permanently funded. Roughly $5.7 million was appropriated for the program in fiscal 2022, according to state documents. The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development administers funds for the program, which awarded 247 students a total of nearly $650,000 in 2021. That surpassed Fast Track’s first full year, in 2020, of over $270,000 distributed among 113 students.

The program is designed to ensure college tuition and fees are fully covered for up to four semesters, in combination with other governmental financial aid. Fast Track is for students ages 25 and older with an average annual household income not exceeding $80,000, for joint tax filers, or $40,000 for any other tax status.

Over 60 public colleges, universities and vocational-technical schools in the state offer Fast Track financial aid, according to the state website. Springfield area options include Drury University, Evangel University, Missouri State University and Ozarks Technical Community College.

The grant requires the student to maintain Missouri residency and at least a 2.5 cumulative GPA and achieve qualifying employment within 12 months of graduation. If they fall short of one of those goals, the grant becomes a loan to be repaid.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher in Missouri were 29.2%, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data in 2019.

While Fast Track funding was available in fall 2019, Leathers said students had more time to apply and learn of the program for the following semester in January 2020. Two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.

“Even throughout that, we were somehow able to enroll nearly 400 Missourians into this program,” Leathers said. “We’re in a position to ensure that this stays here in Missouri and continues to be a valuable opportunity.”

Legislative proposal
Leathers said two bills – Senate Bill 672 and House Bill 2203 – have been filed this legislative session and seek to eliminate Fast Track’s sunset and expand access to students in registered apprenticeships in high-demand fields at Missouri businesses. Those fields include allied health, accounting, computer science and education. HB 2203 is sponsored by Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, and Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, is the sponsor of SB 672.

Hough, who also sponsored SB 68, said his new bill has already been voted out of committee and added to the Senate calendar.

“My intention is to widen this because, in my opinion, the broader you cast this net and the more people who utilize it, the better off our economy is and the better off our employers are,” he said of expanding the program for apprenticeships.

Hough said some legislative members were wary of starting the unproven Fast Track a few years ago.

“Politics, at least in my mind, should be the art of compromise,” he said. “To get Fast Track passed initially three years ago, we put a three-year sunset on it.”

Results-driven
While state officials say the pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the number of students using Fast Track, they’re pleased with participation to date.

“We’ve got two years of results for a program that sunsets at the end of this fiscal year and two years of results through a pandemic,” Hough said.

Those numbers also are amid potential students being drawn to an ongoing large number of job postings, he said, and some of these have sign-on bonuses and other incentives.

Leathers said there are over 122,000 job openings in Missouri, and he noted since the start of 2022, there are over 22,000 job postings in health care and 9,100 for computer-related positions. The Show-Me State’s jobless rate was 3.3% last month, compared with 3.5% in November, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. 

“It’s a tough market, and this tells me that’s not going to change anytime soon unless we have strategies to think through this,” he said. “The biggest barrier we’ve seen to Fast Track participation is obviously awareness. You can never create enough awareness. But it’s also been the impact of the market because of the pandemic. We really think that the institutions that we partner with and work with, there’s a real strong appetite.”

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