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Sat., March 19, 2011

Cuts may hurt Need Grants

Washington state has difficult choices to make right now, choices with consequences that will negatively affect the lives of real people – neighbors and co-workers, parents and grandparents and current and future college students.

The choices became even more difficult after Thursday’s announcement that the projected revenue for the 2011-2013 biennium will be $698 million less than expected. This means that the Legislature will need to cut $5.1 billion from the state budget, assuming tax increases remain off the table.

One of the choices the Legislature must make is how it will continue to partner with the state’s independent colleges to provide access to higher education for our lower-income citizens. Washington currently awards State Need Grants to eligible students to use at the accredited public or private colleges of their choice. State Need Grants vary based on recipients’ income levels, but they are not based on whether recipients attend public or private colleges. When students have the ability to select a school based on the location, program options, mission and size that work best for them, they succeed at higher rates.

At the 10 schools that make up the Independent Colleges of Washington – including Whitworth and Gonzaga – State Need Grant recipients persist in school, graduate on time and are employed at the same rates as students who don’t receive State Need Grants, demonstrating that independent colleges are playing a key role in achieving the state’s goal of leveling the playing field for lower-income students.

I was in Olympia on Monday to talk to seven of our local state representatives and senators about the importance of state student aid. In between appointments I made a surprise visit to Jordon Keller, a Whitworth senior who is serving as a legislative intern this semester. Jordon is part of the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative, a program that provides college-readiness training, mentoring and generous financial aid to multicultural, lower-income cadres of promising student leaders who attend independent partner colleges, including Whitworth and Gonzaga.

The Act Six program made college an option for Jordon, and the State Need Grant helped close the gap in what he needed to enroll at Whitworth. This reflects the state’s partnership with independent colleges at its best.

However, some in the Legislature are calling for smaller State Need Grants for students attending independent colleges than for students attending public colleges. The rationale is that larger grants are needed to maintain the same level of access at public colleges, where tuition is expected to increase 14 percent compared with the recent average increase of 3.5 percent at independent colleges.

My colleagues and I applaud the Legislature’s commitment to providing access to higher education for low-income students. Investing in an educated work force is one of the best things we can do to strengthen economic recovery and growth in the state. Furthermore, family-wage jobs in a knowledge economy increasingly require four-year degrees, and the relative value of those four-year degrees over time is increasing.

For these reasons, it’s in the state’s interest to maximize access to public and private higher education. While tuition may be increasing at higher percentage rates at public colleges, the average dollar amount of the increases is about equal to tuition increases at private colleges. Awarding smaller State Need Grants for students attending private colleges potentially closes the door for lower-income students like Jordon who see attending schools like Whitworth and Gonzaga as their best or only options. Meanwhile, budget cuts are hurting Washington’s public colleges’ ability to accommodate the number of students seeking to enroll on their campuses and to offer the course schedules that enable students to graduate on time.

Washington’s independent colleges long have been – and can be to an even greater extent – an effective and affordable “release valve” for meeting the state’s higher education needs. Independent Colleges of Washington provide 25 percent of degrees at the baccalaureate level and higher in the state, with only 2 percent of the state’s higher-education budget – all in the form of financial aid to students.

As I met with legislators on Monday, I conveyed my deep gratitude for their leadership and service to our state and I empathized with the difficult choices they face. We agreed that it was essential to the state’s future that we make some longer-term investments even as we address the short-term budget crisis. Providing access to higher education is among the best investments the state can make, and partnering with Washington’s independent colleges maximizes the return on that investment. We stand ready to do our part.

Beck A. Taylor is president of Whitworth University.

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