Revamped college grant opens doors for Washington students

Allan Belton is the 14th president of Pacific Lutheran University.
Allan Belton is the 14th president of Pacific Lutheran University. PLU

My thanks to The News Tribune Editorial Board for highlighting our legislators’ decision to fully fund the Washington College Grant (“State steps up for college affordability,” 5/22).

This important expansion of educational aid for Washington state students and families is exactly what fair, accessible higher education looks like. I’m proud that it’s happening right here in our state.

As the Editorial Board noted, a mass absolution of debt is unlikely at PLU’s graduation this weekend (though my phone line is open). That said, I'm proud that our graduates have one of the lowest average student debt rates of all private schools and some of the larger state schools across Washington and the nation.

It’s our hope that this bolstering of the college grant continues to allow prospective students considering postsecondary education an affordable path to attaining their degree.

There’s a misconception that the overhaul of the State Need Grant program will steer prospective students toward public schools, negatively impacting enrollment at private institutions like PLU. That’s not the case.

The genius of the new Washington College Grant is its focus on the needs of students. It’s flexible. It can be used at private, liberal-arts universities such as PLU, or at public two-year or four-year campuses, as well as for apprenticeship programs.

The program is available to new high school graduates and adults who have not yet earned a degree, and to full-time and part-time students. That sort of important flexibility allows families to focus on fit and outcomes. It makes an excellent private school education more accessible for students and families, not less.

Further, the state guarantee of funding means that by the 2020-21 school year, an estimated 110,000 Washington residents will have assistance with tuition and fees at the campus or program that best meets their individual needs.

These significant improvements in our state’s key student aid program matter. Across Washington, we will be able to change the conversation at kitchen tables and break rooms from whether someone can go to college to where they can go.

We know that continuing education past high school is critically important. Higher education pays off for individuals, families and communities. I’m heartened to see more Washington students get this life-changing opportunity.

Schools like PLU have been at the forefront when it comes to affordable access to a high-quality education for quite some time. A good number of our students qualified for the Need Grant in previous years but did not receive it due to state budget constraints – like some 18,000 other low-income students across Washington.

Those students would have had to bridge that gap in funding with institutional aid or additional student loans. Now, a guaranteed Washington College Grant will help them pursue their college aspirations.

With this significant change in state grant support, it’s also incumbent upon schools like PLU to address other systemic challenges facing students. Programs like the PLU Pledge, our groundbreaking free loan-repayment program, ease the burden on graduates by giving them flexibility to meet community needs and follow career passions without fear of student borrowing.

And scholarship programs like the full-tuition 253 PLU Bound Scholarship will benefit another 90 Lutes arriving on campus this fall.

Continuing the fight toward broader, more equitable access to higher education has never been more important. Washington lawmakers have taken an important step toward leveling the playing field for low-income college students.

Let’s continue to make that a reality, across our state and beyond.

Here at PLU, we’re glad to be doing our part — because the world needs more Lutes.

Allan Belton served as interim president at Pacific Lutheran University for the past two years and was recently named permanent president at the Parkland college.