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Messenger: MU steps up on need-based aid, but what about the Missouri Promise?

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University of Missouri Chancellor

Alexander Cartwright applauds during an event announcing Cartwright as the new chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia on Wednesday, May 24, 2017, in Columbia, Mo. Cartwright comes to the the University of Missouri's flagship campus after serving as the provost and executive vice chancellor at the State University of New York. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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The new chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia wants some straight talk.

“If you’re not honest with me, we can’t improve as an institution,” Alex Cartwright told the Post-Dispatch’s Ashley Jost a month into his tenure at the state’s flagship university.

OK. Here’s some truth:

Your new plan to cover full tuition costs of all Pell-Grant eligible Missouri students — currently and going forward — is a long overdue shot in the arm for the university. There was a time not all that long ago — a decade, maybe two — when poor and middle-class students could find a way to make it through MU with a combination of financial aid, scholarships, and work. But as tuition has skyrocketed and state aid has dried up, attending the state’s land grant university has become an out-of-reach dream for too many students.

I know this personally. Every month I pay a bill to the Higher Education Loan Authority of the State of Missouri (also known as MOHELA), to pay off parent loans that helped my son graduate from MU a few years back. Make no mistake, it was money well spent. But for too many Missouri families, rising tuition costs have simply become a back-door tax hike.

This is where the honesty comes in.

You’re not thinking big enough, chancellor. Well, to be fair, it’s not you.

It’s the state of Missouri.

Long before you arrived here from New York, the Missouri Legislature decided that higher education funding was no longer a state priority. Twenty years ago, tuition at the University of Missouri-Columbia was about $3,000. Now it’s more than three times that, and state funding is about the same as it was then. As a percentage of the state budget, Missouri lawmakers spend significantly less on colleges and universities than their colleagues did two decades ago.

Two years ago, then-Missouri state Treasurer Clint Zweifel offered a solution to this problem. It was the kind of public policy shift that can change a state’s trajectory.

Called the Missouri Promise, Zweifel’s idea was simple:

Every Missouri student who graduated with a 3.0 grade point average could go to a public university in the state tuition-free, if they also maintained a 3.0 while in college.

Zweifel wasn’t running for re-election. He wasn’t seeking higher office. The wonkish Democrat was trying to get a state that had consistently been cutting higher education funding over a decade to change its thinking.

“In Missouri, funding for our higher education system is 46 percent less than our neighboring states,” Zweifel wrote in unveiling his Missouri Promise. “Furthermore we rank in the bottom fifth nationally in state funding of higher education, meaning that 80 percent of the country is working harder to send their students to college than we are in Missouri. Needless to say, there is a lot of room for improvement. … It should be a foregone conclusion for every Missourian that if you want to go to college, you can. In order for that to happen, we must send a message to families that for anyone willing to work hard and seize opportunity, we will invest in your success.”

Zweifel did his time in Missouri politics and went on his way. His plan came and went, too.

That Missouri’s flagship university is committed to helping more poor students attend is a step in the right direction. It should help the university reverse last year’s enrollment declines. It should — if done right — increase diversity on a campus that has famously struggled with it.

But it should also send a message to the Legislature that it is a body that is responsible for all of its citizens, whether they want to attend MU, or Missouri State, or Truman State, or the University of Missouri-St. Louis, or any of the state colleges or universities.

University leaders believe their “Land Grants” plan to cover tuition will cost about $5 million per year.

Imagine doubling that investment, or tripling it, so that a future generation of Missouri students can know that a college education is within their reach.

That would be some promise.

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