Our region is blessed with a banquet of choices when it comes to higher-ed.
Within a 35-mile radius of downtown Tacoma, there are two technical colleges, a half dozen community colleges, a handful of private and public universities, and dozens of certificate programs ranging from machining and manufacturing to massage therapy.
Despite all these post-secondary opportunities, less than 40 percent of Tacoma School District graduates take advantage and stick with it until the end.
Cost is the big reason. It’s why the state need grant program was established in 1969. Recipients who’ve made it through the post-secondary gantlet will tell you the aid made a life-changing difference.
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“It has given me a clear path to the American dream,” Anna Nepomuceno, a North Tacoma mother of three, told our Editorial Board last week. A need grant enabled her to study at Tacoma Community College and will carry her through graduation in June at University of Washington Tacoma.
But since 2007, the state budget has underfunded the program. In 2006, only 2 percent of eligible students were denied a need-based grant; by 2011, some 30 percent of students weren’t getting them. At the same time, Washington was losing ground on college affordability.
An outcry from students, parents, teachers, education administrators and politicians followed, but their voices were disparate and muffled.
Enter the College Promise Coalition. Established in 2011, the advocacy group formed for the purpose of increasing postsecondary enrollment. These leaders in education, business and labor correctly view expanding access to education beyond 12th grade as an investment in Washington’s future.
The Legislature must have heard them, because in 2013 it adopted an ambitious goal: that at least 70 percent of adults in Washington, ages 25-44, would possess a postsecondary credential or degree by 2023.
We applaud the vision. Stable career paths require completing four-year or two-year degrees or vocational training programs.
But reaching that benchmark will take more than a wish list. It will take money.
Which is why, without blinking, the coalition is asking state lawmakers for an additional $200 million to fully fund state need grants over the next two years. That’s a roughly one-third increase over the status quo. It would allow another 24,000 eligible Washingtonians to obtain need grants.
So far, nobody in Olympia is biting. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed an increase of $116 million over the next two years, the House countered with $50 million and the Senate stood pat with a big, fat zero.
Instead, the Senate GOP proposal adds college enrollment slots. Its allocation of $28.9 million over two years would add 1,800 spots at the state’s four-year universities for students of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
If lawmakers must choose between enrollment slots and need grants, the latter should take precedence. More than half of all need grants are used at community and technical colleges. This is where most low-income, minority and first-generation students embark on their education trek.
Need grants are weighted toward the poorest families; there are no merit requirements. If a student belongs to a household earning less than half of the median adjusted gross income (currently $59,000 for a family of four), the student is eligible for a grant covering 96 percent of tuition costs.
Without need grants, options for low-income students are few: They can run up debt, postpone or forgo education, or apply for federal aid or institutional scholarships. Alas, federal aid is on shaky ground, as President Donald Trump proposes slashing Pell Grant funding by $3.9 billion.
The idea that most students can eke out a college payment plan with no outside support, whether from family or a need grant, is about as old as “Leave it to Beaver.” Though it can be done, research shows students who work full-time are at a greater risk of stopping or dropping out.
We’d love to see student need grants funded at 100 percent; the state’s workforce development would be better for it.
At a time of many competing obligations, and with K-12 school topping the list, we can accept where the governor has landed. But the House — and certainly the Senate — don’t go far enough.
For too many high school seniors, 2017 will be the last time they walk through the hallowed halls of learning. Lawmakers have it in their power to change that.