In recent weeks, the biggest universities in Washington announced they’ll start covering all tuition and fees for low-income students.
It became a bit of a marketing battle, between Washington State University’s Cougar Commitment and the University of Washington’s Husky Promise – which was announced first.
Under the program, students who qualify for state and federal need-based grants would be guaranteed free tuition and mandatory fees at WSU. Generally, a student from a family of four earning $46,500 or less a year would qualify. The guarantee is part of an expansion of financial aid at WSU, including an increase in merit-based scholarships.
The promise may sound like a bigger deal than it really is. While the school expects to help about 825 students with the new program next year, in many cases it will amount to covering the gap between other forms of aid and the rising cost of tuition. The $400,000 expected cost represents slightly more than 1 percent of WSU’s overall budget of federal, state and university grants of $34.5 million in 2006.
“Part of that is because we already do a lot to meet the needs of students,” said Vicki McCracken, assistant vice president for enrollment services. “What we’ve tried to do is expand the pool of students who would be eligible for scholarships and financial aid.”
Undergraduate tuition and fees at WSU are nearly $6,448.
About 5,000 students are expected to qualify for the program at UW.
At universities such as the University of Idaho and Eastern Washington University, officials say they don’t have a guarantee, per se, but given their lower tuition rates and existing aid programs, they’re covering tuition for students at the level of need targeted by the new Washington guarantees.
“The way this is being presented is really the package we’ve had for years,” said Michelle Whittingham, associate vice president for enrollment services at EWU.
EWU’s tuition and fees are $4,565. Students from poor families typically get that much or more through federal Pell Grants and state need-based aid. EWU students received $17.6 million in grants last year.
At the UI, new grants through the federal government made about $800,000 in new financial aid available to students this year, said Joni Kirk, UI spokeswoman.
“These new programs are a step in the right direction to provide financial access to higher education for our students in need,” Kirk said in a written statement. “It is important to the university that we continue to build on this program with state and institutional programs to assure access for all Idaho students.”
Whittingham said that often these days, it’s students from middle-income families who see the biggest challenges in affording college, since the poorest students have more programs available. She also noted that tuition is only one of the expenses of college.
“Housing – that’s a whole other issue,” she said. “What are we doing to make housing affordable?”
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