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Opinion

Sat., March 30, 2013, midnight

WGU students need support

I have moved on to new endeavors in the Spokane region, but access and equality in higher education remains one of my top priorities. That’s why I support the bill, SSB 5195, which would give needy students at Western Governors University Washington, the opportunity to participate in the State Need Grant program.

For nearly two decades, as superintendent of Spokane Schools and chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, I worked with the community to expand access to higher education for students of all ages and abilities in Eastern Washington.

I was excited when our state’s lawmakers created WGU Washington in 2011. WGU Washington is a nonprofit, online university designed to provide a personal, flexible and affordable education based on real-world competencies. It’s a viable option for working adults interested in earning a college degree while continuing to juggle real life responsibilities.

As important a resource as WGU Washington has become to in-state, adult learners, its students are, under current law, singled out from other students, and barred from accessing critical SNG funds.

I support eligible WGU Washington student participation in the SNG for several reasons, including the institution’s proven value to our state, and our state’s obligation to treat each student citizen equally and fairly.

In the less than two years since WGU Washington opened its virtual doors, it has proven valuable beyond the Legislature’s hopes and expectations. Nearly 4,400 students — who otherwise might not have had a seat at the higher education table — have enrolled in courses at WGU Washington. That’s roughly equivalent to opening a brand-new regional state four-year college! And the growth curve is continuing, as more and more people sign up every month.

But as more students choose WGU Washington, the financial and access equality gap in our state widens. There’s a fairness issue when other private institutions are eligible to receive SNG, but not WGU Washington. The SNG was created to support the state’s lowest-income undergraduate students at public and private colleges and universities, as well as trade and commercial schools. However, the program blocks students from online, accredited universities from getting a fair shake.

Some people say granting WGU Washington students SNG eligibility puts extra strain on the cash-strapped program. However, that fails the equality test by privileging a certain student demographic — 18- to 22-year-olds — over a population of working adults who are likely place-bound and restricted in multiple ways from finishing a college degree. This resonates with me because many of those overlooked students are community college transfer students.

This is a policy that must be changed, especially when analysts project that by the end of the decade, two-thirds of the jobs in Washington will require a college education. We have a ways to go to meet that number. Right now, only two in five workers have a degree.

I agree the matter of funding the SNG program needs to be addressed, as does the problem of skyrocketing tuition on many four-year campuses. But the issues of access and equality addressed by SSB 5195 are separate and unrelated.

WGU Washington students must live in this state; they aren’t out-of-staters who somehow benefit from a largesse that decreases opportunity for our own citizens. Our lawmakers must level the playing field and simultaneously recognize the value of a university they created.

Gary A. Livingston recently retired as chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, and previously served as superintendent of the Spokane Public Schools. He is a member of the WGU Washington board of directors.


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