Working-class families in Washington should know that doors are opening wider to their children at state colleges and universities.
Tuition should not limit their opportunity to attend, under groundbreaking legislation taking effect in 2020.
Every Washington student from a family earning less than median income, currently $92,000 for a family of four, is guaranteed to receive free or reduced tuition at public or private colleges. That’s provided by the new Washington College Grant program, an expanded version of what used to be known as the State Need Grant.
Grants are the centerpiece of a state financial aid program that’s approaching $450 million per year.
There’s enough funding to cover tuition at state schools for every low-income student admitted. The program also provides grants to students in families making up to the median income, on a sliding scale. Grants may also be applied to costs at private, community and technical colleges, and combined with other grant programs. Adults starting or returning to college also are eligible.
Funding for the expanded grant program is coming from business taxes supported by employers during the last legislative session, particularly Microsoft and Amazon. They agreed to new tax surcharges on “advanced computing businesses” with revenues of more than $25 billion.
The result is that companies that depend on higher education to produce skilled workers are paying more, to make sure tuition isn’t an impediment for low-income students to attend college.
“I don’t think it’s quite sunk into people quite how unusual this is,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, chair of the House Higher Education Committee. The Bainbridge Island Democrat noted that while Democratic presidential candidates are discussing ways to reduce college costs, Washington state is already doing it.
The challenge now is to make students and families across the state aware of this opportunity. Then they can work toward college, starting in middle school, knowing that tuition shouldn’t be a barrier to college.
University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce and Washington State University President Kirk Schulz are raising awareness through a program called Yes, it’s Possible. They’re highlighting not just the state grant program, but other financial support programs such as UW’s Husky Promise and WSU’s Cougar Commitment.
“College is within reach,” Cauce said, during a recent meeting with this editorial board.
Educators in K-12 schools — including advisers and counselors at middle schools and high schools — should also spread the word about this tremendous opportunity at Washington state schools.
Starting with students entering college in the fall of 2020, the College Grant program will cover 100% of tuition, building fees and activity costs for families earning up to 55 % of the median income, or $50,500 for a family of four this year. The median for 2020, to calculate grants, will be released early next year.
Students from families earning up to 60% of median get 70% of college costs covered, those earning 70% of median get half of college costs covered and so on. Families of four earning up to around $92,000 will be eligible for grants in 2020.
To obtain these grants, the first step is completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which became available on Oct. 1. Deadlines vary by school; students should look at financial-aid deadlines where they’d like to attend.
The narrative around college costs is often about the burden of loans and prohibitive costs. That’s an important national topic during the presidential election and beyond. Tuition is only part of the cost of college. The state grant program also doesn’t do a lot to reduce college costs for middle-class families, for whom these costs can be overwhelming.
Yet Washington is making great progress. With innovative policy and generous grants, it’s showing how to lower the tuition barrier for lower- to middle-income students.