OLYMPIA –The state’s largest college aid program would get more money and a new name under a proposal heard last week in a key budget committee.
The State Need Grant, which offers scholarships for low-income students on a first-come, first-served basis, would eventually cover all eligible students under the new name: the Washington Promise Scholarship.
Although the program covered 68,205 students last year, 22,600 who were eligible received nothing because money ran out.
As part of budget discussions last year, the Legislature agreed to phase out the waitlist over the next four budget years. Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, prime sponsor of the Washington Promise legislation, said coming up with the money is a top priority this year.
“We made that commitment to them last year in the budget and we need to fulfill that budget promise this year,” he said of those who did not receive the scholarship because money ran out. “We need to keep our word to the students of the state.”
The proposal, which matches a request in Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2019-21 budget, would retain the same eligibility requirements as the State Need Grant. Students from a family between 51 and 70 percent of the state’s median family income would receive a prorated award. This would mean all students from a family of four making $61,500 or less would be eligible for some aid.
Those at or below 50 percent of the state’s median family income – a family of four with an income of $44,000 or less – would receive the maximum scholarship.
The bill would increase the top grant to cover the full cost of tuition and fees at a public college or university, or an equivalent amount for students attending a private college. It would also cover tuition, fees and required equipment for apprenticeship programs.
Students would need to maintain a satisfactory grade level set by the institution, and complete a standard two-year associate’s degree in 2 1/2 years or a four-year undergraduate degree in five years.
But opponents are raising concerns about the cost.
Inslee’s budget proposal adds $103.3 million to the program over the next two years, and would reduce the waitlist by 6,000 students in the 2019-20 academic year, and 12,000 students in the 2020-21 academic year. That would put the Legislature on track to the goal of covering all eligible students by 2021-22.
Spokane Sen. Jeff Holy, the top Republican on the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the state should cover all eligible students eventually, if the money is available, and eliminate the waitlist gradually.
“I’m against what they’re trying to do, although I understand what they’re trying to do: Reprioritize higher education,” Holy said. Lawmakers shouldn’t commit future legislatures to spending money by creating a new entitlement, he said.
The Senate and House both have a range of ideas to make college more affordable for some students, but the decisions on which ideas will survive come down to the final budget agreement between Inslee and the the Legislature.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said it’s too early to tell what the state will do to make higher education more accessible.
“We’re early in the process and our priorities are still evolving,” Ormsby said.
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