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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Gigantic expansion’ of Washington’s State Need Grant means free college for poorest students

Paris Hines, in the legal section of the library at Spokane Community College Thursday, May 30, 2019, is preparing to walk in the graduation ceremonies at SCC, though she won’t actually finish her degree until after summer quarter. She hopes to join the military and go to law school. She has benefited from state assistance to go to community college. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Paris Hines always rushes to fill out financial aid applications so she can cover tuition at Spokane Community College.

“I always try to apply as fast as I can,” she said, “because if you wait for it, you might miss out.”

The 25-year-old single mother works odd jobs and visits the campus food bank to support herself as she works toward an associate degree and a paralegal certificate. Ultimately, she plans to become a lawyer.

But that endeavor would be impossible, she said, if it weren’t for financial aid programs like Washington’s State Need Grant.

Under a new system that raises taxes on about one-fifth of Washington businesses, many more low-income students will benefit from the State Need Grant – rebranded as the Washington College Grant – starting in 2020.

There will be no wait list for those who qualify, so students like Hines won’t need to rush to get ahead of other students. Some will effectively get free rides at public colleges.

“Previously, the State Need Grant was first come, first served, and at some point we would run out of money every year,” SCC President Kevin Brockbank said.

About 92,000 students received tuition assistance from the State Need Grant this year. Another 18,000 qualified but got no help.

The Workforce Education Investment Act, signed this month by Gov. Jay Inslee, expands the grant program so eligible students won’t be left behind. That makes it one of the most generous tuition assistance programs in the country. An estimated 110,000 will qualify next year, including adults who never earned degrees and want to go to school.

“It’s a gigantic expansion of public support for free or lower-tuition higher education,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, who sponsored the bill.

The sweeping legislation has been touted as a promise of “free” college for students from families with annual incomes of $50,000 or less.

Awards for those students are guaranteed to match the cost of tuition at public two- and four-year institutions in Washington, as well as apprenticeships. They’ll also qualify for significant aid if they choose to attend private schools.

The act also raises the grant’s eligibility threshold, so students can qualify for some aid if their households make up to the state’s median income. For a family of four, that’s about $92,000 a year. Previously, the threshold was 70% of a student’s median family income.

The money – nearly $1 billion over the next four years – will come from increased business-and-occupation taxes on about 82,000 of the state’s 380,000 businesses.

The tax increase has three tiers. Microsoft and Amazon, both of which have publicly supported the measure, will pay the highest rate of 2.5%, although their total contributions will be limited to between $4 million and $7 million per year.

“We fund this with an assessment on businesses that depend on higher education to survive,” Hansen said. “That includes accountants, management consulting firms, finance and high tech, with large tech companies paying the highest rates of all.”

Hansen said that funding mechanism is unique, noting that other states, such as Tennessee and Oregon, have funded tuition assistance programs with lottery money and chunks of the state budget.

The bill also had the support of the Association of Builders and Contractors, which likes the investment in apprenticeship programs. But it was opposed by other business groups and independent physicians, who argued it would be too costly for rural doctors.

The bill passed with mostly Democratic support. It’s the second piece of legislation in recent years to have a major impact on college affordability in Washington. In 2015, Republicans led an effort to cap tuition rates and “backfill” university coffers with state money.

Brockbank called the Workforce Education Investment Act “an incredibly significant commitment by the state” and “a huge start toward making college affordable and accessible.”

He said it will especially benefit students at community and technical colleges, which serve large numbers of low-income students. About 80% of SCC students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, another need-based financial aid program.

Brockbank also expressed optimism about the “Guided Pathways” program created by the act, which channels money into counseling and advising positions at community and technical colleges. That, he said, will help students of various backgrounds overcome barriers to their education.

“We want to make sure that every single student we get in our door is successful on the way out,” Brockbank said. “And we see places where previous cuts in funding take away from some of the supports that allow students to be more successful.”

Over two years, about $300 million of the B&O tax revenue will be set aside for public colleges and universities to make targeted investments in high-demand fields.

Hansen said that new account will enable Eastern Washington University to establish a new computer science and engineering degree, expand class sizes in Washington State University’s medical school and boost wages for nursing instructors and professors.

“The community college system had to turn away 800 prospective nursing students last year because there was not a class to enroll them in,” Hansen said. “Why? Because they don’t pay nursing faculty enough money.”

Hansen said he hopes the program will serve not only recent high school graduates but also older adults who never earned degrees.

“We specifically want people already in the workforce, who just never got a shot at college or an apprenticeship, to take advantage of this scholarship and get the job they’ve always dreamed of,” he said.