A compromise state budget proposal would cut financial aid for private-college students, although not as much as originally proposed.
Depending on which version of the state’s budget wins out in the coming weeks, it looks like Washington’s college students won’t see a tuition increase, and might even see a decrease, if they attend a public college or university.
Not so for students at private institutions who rely on state financial aid to help pay their tuition bills. Private tuition isn’t set by the Legislature, of course — but the Republican version of the budget, which would lower state public-school tuition, would also cut the maximum amount of money that students at private schools could receive in state financial aid. The cut could cost some of the lowest-income students several thousand dollars over the course of a four-year degree.
Republicans say they have a fix — but low-income, private-school students would still lose some state aid if that fix were to pass.
Understanding all this requires a primer on the state’s financial aid program. It’s called the State Need Grant program, and is often described as the most generous state-supported program in the country. Low-income students who apply can get thousands of dollars in state grants, whether they attend a four-year or two-year public school, most of the state’s nonprofit private schools and even some for-profit private schools.
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The private schools say it’s a good deal for the state to subsidize low-income students; it’s the only form of state money that the privates receive (about 3,400 private-school students get at least some financial aid). And 10 private schools in Washington educate a significant number of students, accounting for 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded every year. (Those schools are Gonzaga, Heritage, Pacific Lutheran, St. Martin’s, Seattle Pacific, Seattle, Walla Walla and Whitworth universities, Whitman College and the University of Puget Sound — all part of the Independent Colleges of Washington.)
Earlier this year, Democrats in the House proposed freezing tuition at the public schools for two more years. Republicans proposed cutting it — and then paying for that by also trimming the state budget for the need grants.
It makes sense — after all, if you cut tuition, you don’t need to put as much money in financial aid.
The problem: The trims also included a $10 million cut to private-school grant aid.
“We’ve been told that was an unintended consequence, and we’ve been told that it will be addressed,” said Tom Fitzsimmons, vice president of Independent Colleges of Washington.
On Thursday, state Rep. John Braun, R-Centralia, explained that the proposed fix would restore about $6 million of the money. Private-school students wouldn’t lose any financial aid the first year of the biennium, but would lose some funding the second year.
“We’ve put some thought into this, and we think we have a reasonable solution,” Braun said.
Not surprisingly, Democrats disagree.
“It is totally unacceptable to me to pay for a tuition cut at the UW by cutting financial-aid awards at Whitman, Gonzaga and Seattle U,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island. “They do it because their budget doesn’t balance if they don’t do it.”
But Braun said the $6 million needed for the proposed fix has become available since the GOP rolled out its initial budget, in part from a projection released Monday that the state will collect an additional $327 million in new revenue in the 2015-17 budget cycle.