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WSU students start classes Monday with a bit of good news: Student debt in Washington is lower than in many states

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 20, 2019

Students sit on benches on the Glenn Terrell Mall on the Washington State University main campus in Pullman on Monday. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Students sit on benches on the Glenn Terrell Mall on the Washington State University main campus in Pullman on Monday. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Nationwide, Americans owe more than $1.6 trillion in student loans, making student debt the second-largest consumer debt segment in the country after mortgages, according to Federal Reserve data. But students in Washington have a slight advantage, thanks to some of the most generous tuition-assistance programs in the country.

At Washington State University, where students started the fall semester on Monday, about 56% of students borrow to pay tuition, said Brian Dixon, WSU’s assistant vice president for student financial services.

Among those who borrow, the average student graduates with about $25,600 in debt – about $5,000 less than the national average, Dixon said.

Legislation passed earlier this year, raising taxes on about one-fifth of Washington businesses, will greatly expand the State Need Grant and provide free college for the state’s poorest students, while also increasing grant amounts for students from middle-income families.

While that legislation won’t be fully implemented until 2020, students already are benefiting from a surge of financial aid that allowed WSU to move its application deadline from January to July.

“They’re already benefiting from that deadline change, and they’re benefiting from the funds that the state Legislature already allocated for this year,” Dixon said.

“I had a student who missed the deadline last year, who had to work 36 hours a week at Walmart,” he said. “Do you think that would affect your academic outcome if you have to work 36 hours at Walmart and go to school full time? Of course.”

The Democrat-led expansion of the State Need Grant, which is being rebranded as the Washington College Grant, comes about five years after Republicans led an effort to cap tuition rates and “backfill” university coffers with state money.

Dixon said WSU is experimenting with other financial aid programs to help students cover the full cost of attending college, including housing. One such program, which WSU established in partnership with BECU, a credit union, gives students $4 for every $1 they deposit in special savings accounts, enabling each student to earn up to $5,000.

Another program, launched this year, offers grants of $200 to $1,000 for students experiencing financial emergencies, such as unexpected medical expenses. Dixon said the goal is to prevent students from dropping out of school.

“It’s like getting a car repossessed,” he said. “You pay for a couple years and then you have nothing to show for it.”

According to a December 2017 report by the Washington attorney general’s office, the number of student loan borrowers in the state likely had surpassed 800,000 since the latest available count in 2012. Another report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that student loan debt from Washington borrowers totaled $24.4 billion at the end of 2016.

Dixon said the best way students can save money is by learning about all the resources available to them. He pointed to the website, which WSU and the University of Washington set up last year to tout the affordability of public colleges in the state.

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