More free tuition, less student debt ahead in Washington. Future Tacoma graduates can cheer that

Way to go, Class of 2019. College graduates from the Tacoma area ought to toss their mortarboards with joyful abandon as they enter the next phase of life with hard-earned degrees in hand.

Statistically speaking, the odds were against them. Only 49 percent of local high school graduates pursued postsecondary studies in 2017, according to new data from the education advocacy group Graduate Tacoma. And only 57 percent of local students who enrolled in college in 2011 had earned a degree at the end of six years.

So, yes, they have cause to celebrate — though not as much as this year’s grads at Morehouse College in Atlanta. On Sunday, a billionaire tech investor provoked cheers and tears during his commencement address at the historically black, all-male college; Robert F. Smith announced he would pay all student debt for the nearly 400 members of the Morehouse Class of 2019.

Nothing that stunning happened during the University of Puget Sound commencement speech Sunday. Nor does anyone expect a mass absolution of debt at Pacific Lutheran University’s graduation this weekend. Nor at the University of Washington Tacoma and the local two-year college ceremonies next month.

Instead, many Tacoma-area graduates will join their U.S. peers carrying a heavy student-loan burden. In Washington, more than half of graduates are bracing for debt payments, with an average load of $23,936, according to the national Institute for College Access and Success.

That’s a daunting sum for local placebound students of limited means, and it helps explain why many end up stuck in a rut after earning a high school diploma or GED.

The outlook is much brighter for the next wave of students aspiring to college degrees or career-connected certificates. The Legislature this year adopted a bold overhaul to the State Need Grant, a program for free or reduced tuition that’s been underfunded more than a decade, leaving thousands of eligible low-income applicants on the outside looking in.

In 2018, 68,205 students received a grant; another 22,600 students qualified but were placed on a wait list.

Under the plan pushed by majority Democrats, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed Tuesday, the program is rebranded as the Washington College Grant, and it will no longer ebb and flow on the whims of lawmakers juggling competing demands as they draft general fund budgets every two years.

Starting in the 2020-21 academic year, all students of all ages from households up to 100 percent of median income will be guaranteed an award of some size on a sliding scale. Applicants from the poorest households, with a median income up to 55 percent (for a family of four, that’s $50,400), will get free tuition and have other campus fees fully covered.

It doesn’t quite pack the drama of Sunday’s bombshell at Morehouse College. But it’s more predictable and sustainable over time — including during recessions, when state higher-ed dollars are typically slashed.

House Bill 2158 also has a loan-refinancing component to help graduates escape a morass of high-interest debt. The state will contract with a short list of preferred private financial institutions to leverage more favorable payment terms.

Republicans opposed the far-reaching financial-aid plan because it will be funded through a so-called “Workforce Education Investment Surcharge.” That’s a euphemism for raising the B&O tax increases on a wide range of professional-service businesses including engineers, lawyers, doctors, insurance carriers and financial brokers.

But Washington businesses will benefit from better-educated, well-trained employees, and the steepest B&O increases will appropriately fall on multi-billion-dollar tech companies.

So let us be the first to offer early congratulations to the graduating classes of 2020 and beyond. As they chase the American dream and invigorate Washington’s workforce, they’ll be less financially disadvantaged than their predecessors.