Talking to fourth graders about saving money for college is very different than talking to their parents, Missouri Treasurer Eric Schmitt found out Tuesday.
“How do you get money?” asked a student at Crestview Elementary, the first stop on a statewide tour to promote 529 college savings accounts.
When Schmitt replied you get money by working, the girl’s classmate raised his hand to ask, “How much do you get?”
Schmitt explained that his salary was set by a citizen’s commission and was a matter of public record, though he didn’t tell the students the amount ($107,746). When asked if he paid taxes, Schmitt told the kids he did.
“I pay a lot,” Schmitt said with a chuckle.
A kid in the one of the back rows stretched his hand toward the ceiling. “What if you can’t afford to go to college?” he asked the treasurer.
A very good question, since 79 percent of students at Crestwood qualified for free or reduced lunch last year. Families get help paying for meals if their annual household income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $45,510 for a family of four.
Schmitt, who was the first in his family to go to college, nodded solemnly. He talked about picking an affordable school – he got his undergraduate from Truman State University, known for its financial assistance packages – and taking out student loans to pay for law school.
But college is fast becoming unaffordable for most American families. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 68 percent of the class of 2015 graduated with student debt. In Missouri, the average college graduate had loans of $27,480 to pay back.
Schmitt told the kids to go home and talk to their parents about setting a little money aside now for their education later.
“What we know is if a college savings account is opened up for a child, no matter where they’re at, rich, poor, in between – they’re six times more likely to go to college,” Schmitt says.
Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.