For the past eight years, the state’s financial-aid program for low-income college students has run out of money before all the students who qualify received tuition help.
This year, Democrats in the House and Senate are aiming to fix that shortfall, with proposals that could gradually eradicate the gap and ensure the money is an entitlement – a permanent guarantee that the state will fully fund the program every year.
The fixes are aimed at the State Need Grant, a $300-million-a-year program that gives grants – which do not need to be paid back – to students who attend any of the state’s public colleges, most of its private colleges, and a handful of private career academies.
This year, nearly 70,000 students received a share of the money to help pay for college. An additional 20,000 students whose family incomes were low enough to qualify did not receive any money.
The proposed House budget would take care of the funding gap over three years, ramping up funding so that by 2020-21, all students who qualify would receive funding. That will take an additional $150 million.
The Senate proposal takes a slightly different approach, fully funding the program over six years but also making it an entitlement – meaning state budget writers would have to include money for the program every year in the basic budget. Because the funding would ramp up more slowly, the Senate proposal is projected to cost $181 million in additional money between now and 2021.
On Thursday, state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced the entitlement bill, SB 6593. Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge, said he supports making SNG a guarantee, although he wants to eliminate the funding gap sooner. The two lawmakers head their chambers’ respective higher-education committees.
The State Need Grant was squeezed during and immediately after the recession, when more students went to college even as tuition skyrocketed and the amount of money available to programs like this one fell. In 2013-14, for example, more than 31,000 students who qualified didn’t get any State Need Grant money. Since then, as college enrollment has fallen, the number of students who qualified but didn’t get any money has dropped.
Both Ranker and Hansen called funding the State Need Grant a top priority. “It is practically the only way that thousands of families in Washington state can afford college,” Hansen said.
Making the grant an entitlement would help low-income families plan for college, knowing the money would be there when their children were ready to enroll, Ranker said.
The grant is designed to help pay for college for students whose families make up to 70 percent of the median family income. For a family of four, that’s $60,500 a year.
“These are folks who have a job, they’re doing OK, but there’s by no means savings” to pay for their kids to go to college, Ranker said.
Because there has not been enough money for all students who qualify, the state’s colleges and universities award it in different ways, said Rachelle Sharpe, deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency that administers the State Need Grant.
Sharpe said four-year colleges and universities – most of which have fall or winter application deadlines – generally create a pool of all of their applicants, then award the money to the lowest-income students. But because there’s not enough money to go around, some low-income students still don’t get State Need Grant money, she said.
Community colleges, which admit students on a rolling basis as the first day of classes nears, usually award financial aid on a rolling basis, as well. That means some of the lowest-income community-college students who apply too late in the school year don’t get any money at all.
Last year, 81 percent of community-college students who qualified but didn’t get any State Need Grant money were from families that made zero to 50 percent of the median family income – for a family of four, that’s $43,500 or less, Sharpe said.
Sharpe said state research shows that even with State Need Grant money and other forms of federal student aid and scholarships, many low-income students must still borrow money to go to college. Few of them get a free ride.
Gulf War veteran Shannon Turner, of Bremerton, is receiving State Need Grant money this year. Without it, he says, he wouldn’t be able to go to school this quarter. Turner, who served in the Army, is getting a bachelor’s degree in human services from Western Washington University, and is able to take his classes at Olympic College, close to home.
The president of student government at Olympic, he’s lobbied legislators about the importance of the grant. “State Need Grant is this little beacon of hope,” he said, adding that he knows homeless students who sleep in their cars at night who depend on the grant to pay for tuition.
Adan Espino Jr., the legislative liaison for the University of Washington, Tacoma, said about 40 percent of students at that branch campus get State Need Grant money. The student lobbyists have been pushing hard for full funding, he said.
Among the 50 states, Washington’s college-aid program is one of the most generous. The National Association for State Student Grant Aid Programs ranks Washington sixth in total grant dollars based on the size of its undergraduate enrollment.
Ranker described it as a “moral responsibility” to give low-income families an early idea of how much grant aid they’ll be able to receive. He said he believes the state has enough money to fully fund the State Need Grant along with its other priorities, including K-12 funding. “This is absolutely a top priority for me,” he said.