Washington lawmakers agree they should help low-income students pay for college.
By how much is another story.
Budget plans released by Democrats in the state House and Senate this month proposed starkly different amounts of money for the underfunded State Need Grant, a program that provides financial aid to low-income students. The difference reflects varying commitments in the Legislature to provide financial aid to tens of thousands of students who were eligible but did not receive money under the grant in recent years.
The State Need Grant helps more than 60,000 students each year attend one of 65 public, private and community and technical colleges across the state. Since the Great Recession, the state has struggled to accommodate a surge of applicants wanting to pursue higher education with help from the program.
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Budget constraints have forced the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the grant program, to routinely put upwards of 20,000 eligible students a year on a waiting list since 2009, according to data provided by Rachelle Sharpe, the deputy director for the council.
Without grant money, these students end up taking on debt or skipping college altogether and losing out on chance to improve their skills, according to Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island.
Hansen and other House Democrats proposed an ambitious plan to eliminate the waiting list with $158 million in increased funding through 2021.
About $25 million of that would go toward helping roughly 6,200 students off the waiting list by next year — more than twice what the Senate proposed for the same time period.
“It’s not even close,” Hansen said of the Senate’s proposal. “They are not able to clear the backlog the way we are.”
The Senate’s proposal includes $9.8 million in funding through the 2019 and $40.3 million through 2021. That increase would take an estimated 2,500 students off the waiting list this year.
Despite the proposals’ differences, Hansen said he believed there is “strong commitment” in the Senate to address a larger chunk of the waiting list.
State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said he would have liked to include more funding in the Senate’s budget proposal but much of it must go toward full compliance with a state Supreme Court order to fully fund public schools. That could take roughly $1 billion in the 2018 supplemental budget.
Frockt is the vice chair of the Senate’s fiscal Ways and Means Committee.
Other Senate Democrats have pushed for full funding of the grant program through other means.
State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill last week to fully fund the State Need Grant and make it conditional for future budgets to maintain that funding. It also would expand the number of people eligible for the maximum amount of aid under the program.
Senate Bill 6593 aims to fund the program with $181 million raised in part by a $1.50 per semester fee students would pay at public, private and vocational colleges statewide.
“Before we leave town it is my absolute intention to fully fund the State Need Grant,” Ranker said. “We need to make sure the kids coming through high school have the opportunity to go to college regardless of their parent’s income.”
Both Ranker and Frockt said they’d also like to make more students eligible for funding in the future. Students are currently eligible if their families make less than 70 percent of Washington’s median family income. That number varies by the size of a student’s family.
Eli Ellis, a sophomore studying early childhood education at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, received the need grant after he turned 24 — the age when students are considered for financial aid independent of their parent’s income.
Prior to then, Ellis, despite living away from home, was considered ineligible for the grant because his parents made too much money.
“I was thankful there was a program set up in the state to help people who didn’t necessarily have the income to attend college,” Ellis said. “I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to move and I would end up being stuck where I was.”
Joe Dacca, the state relations director for The University of Washington, said he was “thrilled” to hear both chambers of the state Legislature included more funding for the State Need Grant.
Dacca said he supports both proposals and that fully funding the grant has been an issue higher education institutions across the state support . Roughly 8,000 students on the UW’s three campuses receive grants from the program, he said.
“We’re really pleased that both the Senate and the House budget proposals include funding to make that unserved population eligible for the state need grant this year smaller,” Dacca said.
Republicans also have worked to increase financial-aid funding.
Last year, Republicans, who then controlled the state Senate, voted to increase funding for the program by $50 million in the 2017-19 budget to help 875 students on the waiting list. Democrats gained control of the Legislature as result of a special election in the Senate leading into the 2018 legislative session.
This year, state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, proposed focusing the state’s efforts on students at community and technical colleges (CTCs) and regional four-year universities such as The Evergreen State College.
A budget plan Braun released aims to help students eligible for State Need Grants at those schools in two ways. First, it would lower tuition at CTCs by 10 percent — a cost of $110 million paid for by the budget plan — reducing the combined cost of program overhead and eliminating the waitlist by $26.3 million.
The proposal would also boost the State Need Grant for students at CTCs and regional four-year universities by an additional $46.3 million through 2021. Combined, Senate Republicans estimate those efforts would eliminate the wait list for the need grant for students at those schools by the 2020-2021 school year.
State Need Grant funding for the UW, Washington State University and private four-year universities, which Braun said were included in last year’s increase, would not change. Braun said those schools have internal grant programs to help some students eligible for the State Need Grant.
“There is a lot of good things we can do for the citizens for Washington that [the Senate] didn’t address,” Braun said.
Lawmakers are expected to hammer out a final 2018 supplemental budget in coming weeks. The end of the 60-day legislative session is March 8.