OLYMPIA – Free college for everyone may not be coming to Washington, but many students could see the cost of their post-secondary education reduced – although by just how much is still up in the air.
The Legislature will consider a refined list of bills intended to increase accessibility of higher education, including adding money to scholarship programs and alerting students of cheaper course materials.
“It’s certainly not free college,” said Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, the chairman of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “But one day we hope to get there.”
By next year, 70 percent of jobs in the state will require some type of post-secondary education, but in 2016, only 44 percent of workers in Washington had received at least an associate degree, according to a report from the University of Pennsylvania.
The shift of tuition costs from state to student has meant low- to moderate-income students, who must spend a greater percentage of their income on a degree, are less likely to enroll, the report said.
There is power in a promise, said Julia Kelly, of the College Success Foundation.
“If we empower these students to complete their education without the burden of crushing debt, more will go on to complete,” Kelly said. “Without this, it may seem unaffordable or out of reach.”
A top priority for the current Legislature is eliminating a wait list of 22,600 eligible students who did not receive the State Need Grant in 2018 because money ran out, said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who serves on the budget committee.
Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking $103.3 million in his budget to ensure all students at or below 70 percent of the state’s median family income receive a scholarship. He also is proposing to rename the program as the Washington College Promise.
The plan would make Washington a leader in higher education by guaranteeing students don’t go unserved, said Maddy Thompson, a senior policy adviser for Inslee.
“This strategy helps to boost our economy, and it also helps to improve equity of opportunity. It’s both a social justice strategy and economic strategy,” Thompson said.
A bill in the Senate that builds on the idea of promise scholarships would allow graduates from certain high schools to receive free tuition at public colleges and universities.
The Evergreen Promise Pilot Program would guarantee free college and an annual $500 stipend to all students in the 2023 graduating class from six high schools across the state. Schools with low college matriculation rates would be selected by the Student Achievement Council.
Another bill in the House would allow low- to moderate-income students attend community and technical college free. It would start a pilot at five schools across the state, and gradually increase those eligible for free tuition each year and ultimately provide free tuition at all community and technical colleges to those below the median income by 2024-25.
But some have pushed back at the idea of creating entitlement programs that commit future Legislatures to spending. Students won’t appreciate their education if it’s free, said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Spokane.
“When you have your sweat, your investment, your family’s investment, you appreciate it more, you work harder,” Schoesler said. “If it’s free, I think it’s a lot easier to waste time and resources versus if you have a personal investment for yourself and your family.”
College Bound Scholarship
Plans to update the College Bound Scholarship also have been working their way through the Legislature. The scholarship guarantees free tuition to middle schoolers eligible for free and reduced-price lunch who pledge to graduate high school.
One bill would extend the opportunity to pledge to ninth and tenth graders who previously did not qualify. Another would require public institutions to provide free on-campus housing for first-year students in the College Bound program who otherwise would be homeless.
A third bill would give free tuition to students eligible for College Bound who enter dual enrollment programs. Those who complete a dual enrollment program still would be eligible for a full College Bound Scholarship at a four-year institution.
A number of bills would make dual enrollment programs, such as Running Start and College in High School, more accessible.
One bill would allow students between ages of 16 and 21 who complete an associate degree, to receive the equivalent of a high school diploma, a certificate necessary for many jobs and requesting financial aid.
Another bill would require the Legislature to give scholarships for dual enrollment programs to those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
Accreditation standards for programs that provide college classes to high school students would be updated under a pair of bills. One would require community and technical colleges offering concurrent enrollment to be nationally accredited within the decade.
“These students should not only have access to college level credit, they should have access to college level classes,” said Ruben Flores, of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
One proposal would require the state to establish a system-wide policy for ensuring that credits from Advanced Placement, Cambridge International and International Baccalaureate course are accepted by colleges.
Students who take classes and spend money toward college credit should receive those credits, Flores said.
A variety of bills that identify students who have special circumstances also have been considered.
Community college districts would be required to develop or renovate buildings to provide housing for homeless students under one bill. Another would create a pilot program designed to provide such basic needs as access to laundry and shower facilities for homeless students.
Veterans would be eligible for in-state tuition for as many as 250 credits – up from the current limit of 200 – under a pair of bills. A current loan program for National Guard members, which doesn’t require repayment if the student graduates, would be changed to a grant with no requirements for repayment for failing to graduate for members who remain in the Guard for a certain length of time.
Children of veterans and National Guard members killed or disabled while serving or kept as prisoners of war also would receive free tuition. Similarly, children of contracted highway workers killed or disabled in the line of duty would qualify for tuition waivers.
A scholarship for Native American students would require the state to match private contributions.
Parents attending community and technical colleges on a full-time basis could receive free childcare.
Students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch would no longer have to pay application fees at colleges and universities under one bill. Those students would also be eligible for a seed grant of $100 in the Washington Children’s Educational Savings Account when they are in kindergarten.
Community and technical college students experiencing unforeseen personal emergencies could apply to the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges for a state grant to acquire basic food and other essential needs.
Another bill would allow a city or county government to donate money that the state would match to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship to cities and counties, ensuring that money goes to students from that area.
A pair of bills would require institutions to notify students of courses with low-cost materials.
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