OLYMPIA – Per capita, Washington ranks among the lowest states in the country in terms of the number of residents who apply for federal student aid to fund a postsecondary education.
And community colleges are struggling to meet students’ needs nationwide. In the United States today, 16% of students who enroll in community college complete a degree in three years and only 28% complete one within eight years, according to state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle.
“We are failing,” Pollet testified at a legislative committee hearing Tuesday. “We are in the bottom half of the nation in terms of postsecondary enrollments, despite having the most generous college grant, financial aid in the nation.”
Pollet and a group of his fellow lawmakers hope to turn those bleak numbers around with a pair of bills aiming to increase the number of Washingtonians who submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or a Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WAFSA). In doing so, education experts say applicants will realize just how much state and federal cash they qualify for to help them pay for college or technical school.
“Students don’t understand that, indeed, postsecondary education is for them and is going to be available,” Pollet said.
Public hearings were held for the pair of bills in the state House Postsecondary Education & Workforce Committee. The bills, Pollet said, are meant to work alongside each other to raise financial aid application rates through offering eligible students free community college.
The Washington 13 Free Guarantee
State Rep. Steve Bergquist, D-Renton, is the primary sponsor on the first of the pair of bills discussed in the committee. Dubbed the 13 Free Guarantee, Bergquist’s bill would provide 45 credits – or one year’s worth – of free community or technical college to eligible students who enroll in a community or technical college that serves the same district from which the student graduated high school or earned a GED diploma.
Last year, Bergquist facilitated a smaller-scale pilot program of his proposed bill in Renton, where he teaches 10th-grade social studies. He wanted to see if the program could generate higher FAFSA and WASFA completion. The program offered students graduating from the Renton School District the opportunity to attend Renton Technical College with their first year paid.
On average, 50 graduates from the Renton School District go on to attend Renton Technical College each year. Under the implementation of Bergquist’s pilot program, 85 students enrolled at the college in the fall quarter alone last year.
“The turnaround was just amazing,” Bergquist said.
Funding for the program would come from three pots: the Washington College Grant, the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program and the state’s General Fund coffers. The Guaranteed Education Tuition program is about 150% funded right now, according to the state actuary, Bergquist said. The program is projected to grow to 500% funded over the next 10 years, he said.
Right now, that Guaranteed Education Tuition surplus equates to about $550 million.
In Washington, officials say there’s a funding gap for prospective college and technical school students who come from families that fall between 65% of the statewide median family income and 140% of the median family income. Current government programs provide a lot of support for students below 65% of the median family income, and families above 150% generally have enough income to help their kids go to college, Berquist said.
“There’s almost a canyon of affordability that is created,” he said.
The Washington Promise Program
Second in the pair of proposed bills is the Washington Promise Program. The bill’s prime sponsor is Pollet, who said he’s been trying to start a free community and technical college program since 2016.
The promise program would offer 90 credits – or two years’ worth – of tuition-free community or technical college for qualifying Washingtonians beginning in the 2026-2027 academic year. Students would be required to earn the credits within six academic years after starting the program.
Eligibility requirements for the proposed legislation look similar to those of the proposed 13 Free Guarantee. Among them, recipients would have to be from a family with income at or below 200% of median family income.
Beginning in the 2028-2029 academic year, students would be able to enroll at any time after graduating high school or earning their GED certificate. In that academic year, the income threshold of the Promise Program would be lowered to 150% of the state median family income.
Colleges would be required to administer “intensive” advising for student success to all recipients of the Promise Program grant.
“The program also provides support for students who transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges and often fall through the cracks, particularly first-generation students,” Pollet said.
The promise program was modeled after similar programs in other states, including one at the City University of New York. A study found that the program doubled the number of community college students at CUNY who continued on to their second semester, Pollet said.
The city of Seattle implemented its promise program that has received high praise from educators around the state. Pollet wants to expand the program across the state.
“The people of Spokane, for example, I think should ask, ‘Why aren’t we given the same opportunity to have a promise program that Seattle has?’ ” Pollet said.
Bergquist and Pollet planned for their proposed bills to work in tandem if they pass. This is why the 13 Free Guarantee would begin this year, and the promise program would not take effect until 2026.
Angelita Cervantes is a student at Yakima Valley College. She testified at the committee hearing, saying she’s seen firsthand how invaluable a year of free higher education would be for her neighbors in Yakima County.
“With my 13 years of experience working in a warehouse and in the fields, I have met a lot of students who just wanted to work for a year to save money for school but never made it,” Cervantes said. “They got caught up in other responsibilities, leaving their aspirations and dreams of attending school unfulfilled.”