Last spring, Washington lawmakers made national headlines when they passed an innovative plan to pay some or all of the tuition bill for low- to middle-income students and adults returning to college. 

And just a few months earlier, Seattle voters approved a massive education levy that included about $40 million to send Seattle public school grads to community college tuition-free.

Free college was a winner, politically speaking. But now, a global pandemic threatens to wreak havoc on state and local budgets. Can the city and state still keep those college promises?

Officials say they have to.

“We made a commitment as a state, and it was a major priority of the governor, that college would be free for families earning $50,000 a year or less,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D- Bainbridge, who sponsored the legislation. 

Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration says the same.

Asked about the funding in a news conference in early April, Inslee stepped away from the mic to let David Schumacher, who directs the Office of Financial Management, respond. The grant becomes an entitlement on July 1, Schumacher said, “so that means any student that shows up and qualifies gets the payment, no matter what. Because it’s an entitlement, that means it’s a promise.”

State tax revenues here are expected to plummet as a result of the economic downturn, with some experts suggesting the damage to tax collections could be worse than during the Great Recession. In April, Inslee slashed $445 million from the state operating budget, and lawmakers may have to return to Olympia later this year for a special legislative session to approve additional spending cuts.

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Both of the so-called “college promise” plans were forged before the global health emergency, and they are informed by a dismal statistic: Washington ranks near the bottom among the 50 states for the percentage of its high school students who go to college in the fall after graduation. Nearly five in 10 graduating seniors delay or forgo enrollment, and students from low-income families enroll at rates 19 percentage points below their peers. 

The Washington College Grant program is funded in large part by a new business tax, but that tax had to be rewritten this year because an earlier version was too complex, and because state forecasters believed it wouldn’t raise enough money. Seattle Promise gets its money from city property taxes.

Currently, the state has forecast that 103,108 Washington students and adults will qualify for money to pay for community college or a four-year college degree starting this fall, the first year of the grant. (Approximately 350,000 students are enrolled in public, private and two-year colleges in Washington this year.) The Caseload Forecast Council, a state agency, relies on historical patterns of enrollment combined with financial aid data from the Washington Student Achievement Council to make its determination.

The state has budgeted $860 million for it in the 2019-21 biennial budget, and expects to need $992 million for the 2021-23 budget to pay for student financial aid.

“It’s absolutely a priority to keep that commitment,” Hansen said. 

Still, in this turbulent time, Washington students aren’t rushing to fill out the paperwork they need to qualify.

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Only about 41% of the approximately 67,000 public and private school 12th graders in the state had filled out the paperwork by April 17, according to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), which keeps tabs on financial-aid form completion. The top state: Tennessee, where nearly 75% of students had completed the FAFSA, the federal aid form. Washington ranks 44th.

To be sure, completions of the federal aid form called FAFSA have dropped nearly 3 percentage points nationwide compared to the same time last year. “The news is grim any way you cut it,” wrote Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for NCAN, in a blog post.

Washington has long been near the bottom on FAFSA completions. “We have a long way to go,” said Rachelle Sharpe, deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency.

Counselors and teachers are among those who help nudge students along to complete FAFSA forms. Of those who haven’t filled out the paperwork, “many of them will be students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and/or first-generation students, and these students, even in a normal year, tend to need more support to hurdle the obstacles to get to college,” said DeBaun in an email. 

“It will take a concerted effort from a lot of partners in communities across the country to keep the class of 2020 on track for a postsecondary pathway,” he wrote.

But it’s not too late to apply, Sharpe said. And although the FAFSA uses figures from a family’s 2018 tax return, students can talk to their college’s financial aid office and make adjustments if family income has fallen off — if a parent has lost a job, for example, she said.

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However, the deadline has passed for Seattle Promise, the program that gives Seattle Public Schools students graduating this spring two years of free community college at Seattle Colleges, regardless of family income. About 1,600 students met application deadlines, the first of which passed in February, before coronavirus was widespread. 

Seattle Colleges officials say they don’t know how, or if, the coronavirus will affect enrollment. In some national surveys, students have said they’re planning to downscale their education plans to save money — going to a state university rather than a pricier out-of-state or private college, for example, or starting at a community college. 

After the 2008 recession, Washington slashed funding for higher education to balance the budget, and many students who qualified for aid through a previous program, the State Need Grant, didn’t receive any state money. State financial aid is only one source of college money; more comes from federal Pell grants, and federal and private loans.

But the state’s grant money was always seen as playing a vital role in helping to cut the cost of college, and state leaders often said they wanted to get back to fully funding the program. In 2013-14, for example, nearly a third of those who qualified — more than 31,000 Washington students — did not receive state aid for college. 

The Washington College Grant was promoted as a way to end college aid waitlists and encourage more students to get any form of postsecondary education. 

A student from a family of four with an income of $53,000 a year qualifies for full tuition aid. The amount of aid decreases as a family’s income increases. A student from a family of four that makes $97,000 a year, the highest income level that qualifies, would receive aid equivalent to 10% of the cost of tuition.

Any Washington adult who has earned less than a bachelor’s degree can also apply for aid. The state recently unveiled a new tool, the College & Career Compass, at compass.wsac.wa.gov, which guides adult students through the process.