Democratic lawmakers are proposing free community-college tuition for two years, following models like Oregon’s. No word on where the money will come from, however.
OLYMPIA —Tuition at the state’s community and technical colleges would be free for many state residents under an ambitious proposal that takes up President Obama’s call to expand educational opportunity, yet so far provides no way to pay for it.
In announcing the proposal, Democratic state Sens. David Frockt and Pramila Jayapal, both of Seattle, acknowledged they don’t know where the money would come from. Nonpartisan legislative staff has projected the costs at $94.4 million to $105.1 million for fiscal 2017.
“We’re going to need to make sure we have that discussion in the context of a budget that is substantial,” Jayapal said last week, noting the price tag is high for a legislative session dealing with a supplemental budget.
Still, said Jayapal, who last week also announced her run to succeed retiring U.S. Rep Jim McDermott, she is optimistic it can pass, given the Legislature’s work in 2015 to lower higher-education tuition.
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Bill sponsors say the tuition help would increase high-school graduation.
“We want people who are just on the edge to be moving into the middle class,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle. “It puts the dream of higher education in reach for everyone, regardless of income, regardless of where they live.”
Pollet said funding could be found “fairly easily,” by closing some tax exemptions. That’s been a common suggestion from Democrats, but not easily accomplished.
Last year, 181,451 students attended community college full time in Washington state. The legislation to fund two years of tuition would cover about 53,000 eligible students.
Program qualifications include maintaining a GPA of at least 2.0, not having a bachelor’s degree and not having more than 120 credits or been in school for more than four years.
The bill would help people who are just barely above the income threshold for receiving financial aid, state grants and scholarships but who still can’t afford college.
Many students in community and technical colleges receive grants and scholarships.
Advocates of the proposal say it could bring a 5 to 9 percent increase in enrollment.
The Washington Student Achievement Council has set a goal of having at least 70 percent of Washington adults with a postsecondary degree by 2023. Currently, just over 51 percent of Washington adults ages 25 to 44 have a postsecondary credential.
Sarah Pingel, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, said she’s been tracking free community-college legislation since it started trending.
A total of 23 pieces of legislation have been considered in 21 states so far, with three states taking action.
The first to pass a bill for free community-college tuition was Tennessee in 2014, then Minnesota and Oregon the following year.
President Obama last year announced his support for a government program to make community college tuition free.