The Legislature next year can broaden opportunities for more Washington students to attend college, while helping them reduce student debt.

Share story

IT was John F. Kennedy who once told us, “Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” The recent public spat over who should get credit for Washington’s victory in efforts to reduce college tuition [“GOP annoyed Gov. Inslee is taking credit for college-tuition cuts,” Local News, Aug. 25], probably makes voters chuckle at the image of bickering politicians arguing even when something good actually happens.

The truth is Washington students and their families don’t really care who did it and how it came to pass. They are just happy that after years of tuition increases in tight budgets, their elected officials enacted a historic tuition reduction for students at our public universities and community colleges. What people really want to know is: How to keep the positive momentum going?

The good news is that what occurred on college costs can be made even better in the coming legislative session if we put aside the partisanship and work together to extend as many higher-education opportunities as we can while reducing student debt. And it is not a complicated formula.

First, Washington needs to fully fund the State Need Grant; it’s the primary state-based financial-aid program. The award amount was designed to cover nearly all tuition costs at state public colleges and universities. Before the Great Recession, the state kept its promise to pay a significant portion of tuition costs for its neediest students.

In 2006-’07, 97 percent of eligible students (typically from households making less than $60,000 per year) received some award — full or partial. That number fell to 70 percent the following year and has remained roughly there ever since. In practical terms, that means 30,000 students across Washington each year struggle to find some other way to pay for tuition and other educational costs. Fully funding the program is now not only less expensive because of the tuition reduction, but it is also an acknowledgment that we are no longer cutting corners because of the recession.

Second, Washington needs to commit to expanding student eligibility for the State Need Grant so that students with family incomes between $60,000 and $125,000 — the near-middle and middle class — can also obtain state-based financial aid. This is critical because average student loan debt for some graduates can be nearly as high as a first-year starting salary in some fields. If our institutions are truly “public,” this must change.

As is the case with the students who are eligible for — but not receiving — a State Need Grant award, the most common form of aid these students receive is in the form of federally backed or private loans. This is compounded if the student goes to graduate school. Studies show that roughly half of all graduate students took out student loans as an undergrad.

Public investment in higher education has not kept up with rising costs for the middle class and those who aspire to it.”

Fully funding the existing program and expanding eligibility to serve students whose families have incomes up to $125,000 could mean that an additional 65,000 to 80,000 students in Washington would receive the grant in some form. This would effectively cover more than 80 percent of Washington families, significantly reducing the amount of student debt that graduates will incur.

Over the last two years, there have been a series of great proposals on higher education at both the state and federal levels. Expanding our State Need Grant, making the additional investments that our public community colleges and universities have requested and continuing to invest in other excellent programs like the Opportunity Scholarship and College Bound would create a new middle-class compact for Washington families and continue to make this state a national leader on the expansion of postsecondary education for our people.

We must consider access to higher education as a broad public good. Public investment in higher education, however, has not kept up with rising costs for the middle class and those who aspire to it. Two years ago we began to turn this around with rare bipartisan consensus. If we want to continue to create political victories with a thousand parents, we should fully fund and expand the State Need Grant in order to reduce college-debt burdens on thousands more Washingtonians.