The State Need Grant for low-income college students doesn’t need a GPA threshold, it needs to be expanded.

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SINCE 1969, the state Legislature has sent generations of low-income students up the educational escalator, offering deep college financial aid for those lucky enough to get it. The State Need Grant is a smart policy with a huge return on investment for 68,000 students now at two- and four-year institutions.

Those students graduate at higher rates than non-supported peers. They are disproportionately (38 percent) students of color. And they universally say they are now prepared for careers.

But the State Need Grant has a significant problem. Because of budget constraints, it is a first-come, first-served policy that reaches only about 70 percent of the eligible students. Currently, more than 24,000 eligible students at state institutions are on a waiting list — losing out on a random and potentially life-changing lottery.

The Legislature has chipped away at the backlog, and this year should try to end it, even at an eye-popping cost of about $100 million.

What the Legislature should not do is impose a GPA cutoff for State Need Grants. A bill, SB 5820, has raced through the Republican-held state Senate with a new 2.5 GPA threshold for Need-Grant aid. Currently, recipients of Need Grants get a special review — and, typically, special counseling at their institution — if they fall below 2.0, but don’t automatically lose their grants.

Sen. John Braun, the Centralia Republican who chairs the Senate budget-writing committee, said at a recent hearing on the bill, “Moving from a 2.0 GPA to a 2.5 does not seem to me to be a gross injustice when we know there are other students with higher GPAs that are not being served.”

It’s a fair question: there probably are higher-performing students on the waiting list. But instead of rationing aid, it should be expanded to include the ones being left behind. Braun has the power to end the waiting list for Need Grants.

There is plenty of evidence that the Need Grant is working as intended, without a GPA cutoff. At all levels of higher education, graduation rates for Need-Grant recipients are higher than for Need Grant-eligible students on the waiting list, according to a study by the state’s Education Research and Data Center. More than 60 percent of State Need Grant recipients enrolled at four-year institutions graduated within five years, comparable to national averages.

Students, researchers, universities and the state’s Council of Presidents, which represents the four-year institutions, have protested the proposed GPA threshold. Up to 7,000 students could stand to lose vital Need Grants. If faced with losing that aid, students may predictably gravitate toward easier classes, avoiding the STEM courses that feed the highest-demand professions.

The State Need Grant for generations has provided an educational and economic ladder for low-income students. Instead of rationing that aid, the Legislature should expand it.