Heads up: Going to college in Washington will soon become a lot cheaper for prospective students whose families struggle to make ends meet.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a sweeping higher-education bill that will cut the cost of tuition, or make it free, for low- and median-income students. In a tweet, he described it as creating “a statewide #freecollege plan for eligible students.” Nationally, the bill has been hailed as a progressive approach to making college more affordable, and it’s expected to reach up to 110,000 students.
We asked readers to send us their questions about the new act, and received 45 responses. Below, we’re answering the most commonly asked questions.
But first, a bit of background.
Washington already had one of the most generous financial-aid programs in the country, the State Need Grant, but the grant often ran out of money before all students who qualified received funds. The Workforce Education Investment Act replaces the State Need Grant with a new program, the Washington College Grant (WCG), and makes the money an entitlement. Grants can cover up to 100% of tuition plus service and activity fees, and do not need to be paid back. It’s not a so-called “last-dollar” program — a student who qualifies for WCG could also receive a federal Pell grant, for example.
The legislation is built on the idea that Washington’s economy already employs a lot of college graduates, many of whom move here to chase opportunity — yet only about 31% of Washington’s own high-school graduates have earned a degree or credential by the age of 26, according to one study.
Being clear and upfront about who qualifies, and guaranteeing the money, removes the uncertainty surrounding financial aid. That, in turn, should make it easier for school districts and colleges to encourage kids to think about earning a certificate or a two- or four-year college degree, or becoming trained through a registered apprenticeship (also covered), said Rachelle Sharpe, deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees financial aid. Sharpe helped us answer most of the questions below.
The program also covers adults who don’t already have a degree, allows students to go to school part-time and provides aid for accredited in-state private colleges and universities.
I’m graduating from high school this spring. Should I take a gap year, since full funding of this program won’t begin until 2020?
Washington is steadily ramping up the funding for financial aid, including a big increase in fall 2019 and full funding in 2020. Before making a decision about a gap year, fill out the admissions and financial-aid paperwork and see how much you qualify for now. There are also academic reasons to go to college right after high school; research shows students are more likely to complete college if they maintain momentum in their studies.
Are students currently enrolled in college eligible starting in 2020?
Our family has put money aside in a 529 college savings plan. How will that affect my eligibility?
The value of your 529 account is considered an asset when the family’s ability to pay for college (the “expected family contribution”) is calculated. However, the Washington College Grant is primarily based on family income. Sharpe recommends that families who can save for college should keep doing so, because that money can combine with grant assistance to reduce or eliminate the need to borrow or work long hours in college. Money from 529 plans can also be used to cover non-tuition expenses.
Will this affect admissions at the University of Washington?
In a word, no, says Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment management at the UW, the state’s most selective public university. It’s possible that if the UW starts receiving more in-state applicants, and if those applicants meet the qualifications for admission, it could become more competitive. “But those are two big ‘ifs,'” Ballinger said. It’s also worth noting that the university has its own robust financial-aid program, Husky Promise; many low-income students already qualify for money to pay the full cost of tuition. Washington State University has a similar program called Cougar Commitment.
I’m planning to start college out of state in 2019. Would I qualify for the grant if I transferred to an in-state school in 2020?
Yes, assuming you meet all of the eligibility requirements for WCG when you transfer.
Will this award affect a student’s ability to get other grants and scholarships?
It depends. Generally speaking, financial-aid packages are designed to meet a student’s educational expenses. If your family can’t contribute much or any of the cost, you may be eligible for other funds.
Is there a residency requirement?
Yes. There are four primary ways to meet the residency requirement — you can find more information at readysetgrad.wa.gov/residency-citizenship
It’s not necessary to be a U.S. citizen. In 2014, lawmakers passed the Real Hope Act, which allows Washington students who were brought to this country illegally as children to apply for state financial aid. In 2017-18, about 3% of students who received a State Need Grant used a special Washington application for students who are not citizens to apply for aid.
What protections are in place to keep a family from gaming the system — filing for divorce, for example, to drive down income levels, or seeking financial independence for their children?
Washington programs rely in part on the federal financial-aid application and delivery system, which has safeguards to prevent that from happening. A student’s financial circumstances are evaluated annually, based on income from the previous year.
Will tuition for others go up?
No. In 2015, legislators rolled back tuition and passed a bill that ties in-state, undergraduate tuition increases to the long-term growth rate in the state’s median hourly wage. On average, it has meant tuition increases of 2.1% to 2.4% a year. Tuition paid by other students is not financing the WCG.
How much is this going to cost, and who will pay the tab?
The act is funded by an increase in the Business & Occupation Tax for about 82,000 businesses that report business activity under the “service and other activities” classification, and that are primarily engaged in 43 specific categories of activity — mostly those that employ people with college degrees or credentials.
On Jan. 1, 2020, the rate goes from 1.5% to 1.8% for many of the activities done by certain service-oriented businesses, such as architects, engineers, lawyers, information technology, banking, investment management, broadcasting, marketing, accounting, medical care and dental care, to name a few.
Those who pay 1.8% will fund the lion’s share of the increase — about $713 million over four years. The tax increases to 2% for advanced computing businesses with revenue that exceeds $25 billion, and to 2.5% for those with revenue that exceeds $100 billion (read: Microsoft and Amazon). Those two tiers will account for $60 million of the funding over four years. Of course, many — if not most — taxes are passed on to the consumer, so if you use any of these services, you could see prices rise.
Do students have to maintain a certain GPA or show that they’re serious about finishing a degree?
Students must make “satisfactory progress” toward earning their credential or risk losing their aid. At most colleges, that means keeping a GPA of 2.0.
What is going to stop students from dragging out their educations as long as possible to take advantage of this program?
The financial aid is limited to 125% of the length of the program, which equals 7.5 quarters for a student in a community or technical college, and 15 terms for a four-year degree.
Why does the bill say it covers apprenticeship programs? Don’t you get paid to be an apprentice?
If a student in an apprenticeship qualifies, the money could cover tuition, fees and required program supplies and equipment. Many apprenticeships require trainees to attend classes at community colleges.
Can you use this aid to go to trade school?
The act covers tuition at community colleges — where many people in the trades in Washington earn their credentials — as well as a handful of private, accredited career colleges.
How do you apply?
There’s no special application. Just fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or, if you are a Washington resident but not a citizen, the Washington Application for State Financial Aid, and fill it out as early as possible. If you’re accepted to an eligible institution — there are 66 of them — your school will tell you whether you have been awarded any state or federal financial aid.
Need more information?
You can get an idea of the median family income levels for families of different sizes at readysetgrad.wa.gov/college/washington-college-grant.