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Washington state lawmakers want to save seat at budget table for free college

The Legislative Building on the opening day of the 2019 session. Lawmakers want to make financial aid for higher education an entitlement.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
The Legislative Building on the opening day of the 2019 session. Lawmakers want to make financial aid for higher education an entitlement.



The question hanging over the Washington state Legislature this winter isn’t so much what laws will pass, but how they’ll be funded.

Behind the biggest policy goal — a bipartisan push for mental health reform — are a number of issues vying for a spot in the Legislature’s budget that will be unveiled in March. Chief among those is a bill that would make college free for certain residents.

But unlike other issues, lawmakers want to make financial aid for higher education an entitlement, meaning its seat in the state budget would be guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

The measure, called the Washington College Promise, would require the state to fund the State Need Grant, which provides higher education financial aid to people with low incomes.

Each year, the grant helps more than 60,000 students attend one of 65 public, private, and community and technical colleges across the state. But in the past decade, the program has struggled to accommodate a surge of applicants.

An estimated 18,000 people will be waitlisted for the program this year, due to insufficient funds needed to sustain the growth in applicants. The total number of students waiting for aid has shrunk since the Legislature provided temporary funding last year. But the program's future remains shaky, as qualifying students aren’t guaranteed financial aid.

“Sometimes you can get it and sometimes you can’t,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island who sponsors the measure. “From the perspective of students and families this is a mess.”

The Washington Promise, which was requested by Gov. Jay Inslee, would stabilize the program by shoring up funding and increasing aid up to the actual cost of tuition. Funding also would change year to year, depending on how many eligible students apply — currently, people who make less than 70 percent of the state median income who have not gone to college.

“The governor-proposed bill puts the policy into statute, which previously has always been in the budget process, so that will really make it consistent and reliable,” said Rachelle Sharpe, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the grant.

On the municipal level, Seattle recently passed an education levy that includes more than $40 million to make community and technical college free to all high school graduates.

Should the state effort succeed, Washington would join 11 other states that have already made college education an entitlement to low earners.

Copyright 2019 Northwest News Network

Max Wasserman