State lawmakers this year set aside millions of dollars to help pay tuition for low-income college students, build up computer science at the state’s flagship university, and create new student-loan consumer protections.
For a short legislative session, an unusually long list of bills on the higher-ed wish list were signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee this month. State Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who headed the Senate Higher Education Committee this year, attributes it to a switch in the balance of power – many bills championed by Democrats had died in previous years under the Republican-led Senate higher education committee.
One of the biggest moves was a pledge by lawmakers to fully fund the State Need Grant, the state’s $300 million college financial-aid program, which has been unable to provide aid to all of the students who qualified for it since 2009.
In 2016-17, for example, nearly 90,000 low-income Washington college students qualified, but about 21,000 of them – most studying at two-year colleges – did not receive any money.
This fall, the need grant will help an additional 4,825 students. Lawmakers ended the session with a nonbinding commitment to put more money into it each year, until all students who qualify by 2021 receive help, said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, who heads the House higher education committee.
That will cost an additional $18.5 million in 2019, $38 million in 2020 and $59 million in 2021. Ranker had proposed making the State Need Grant an entitlement, but that bill failed.
The University of Washington’s computer-science school received an additional $3 million to hire faculty, teaching assistants, undergraduate advisers and technical support staff – all the people needed to increase the number of students graduating with computer science degrees, the UW’s most sought-after major.
It’s the culmination of a four-year effort launched by Hansen and then-Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, to double the number of students graduating in computer science, from 300 to 600 earning degrees a year. “It’s the Legislature’s vote of confidence in UW computer science excellence,” said Hansen.
State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, successfully championed a bill that will prevent for-profit colleges from steering students into high-interest loans offered by the colleges themselves.
That’s what happened in the early 2000s, when a string of six for-profit Everest College campuses operated in Washington. Everest, owned by Corinthian Colleges, steered students into loans from its own student loan agency with high interest rates that had to be paid back almost immediately. Corinthian went bankrupt in 2015, and the Everest branches, which were bought by Zenith Education, were renamed Altierus Career Colleges. Most of those colleges nationwide are now being closed.
Pollet said many Everest students could have qualified for low-interest federal loans and attended state community colleges for a third of the cost of an Everest degree. He thinks the new law will prevent a future Everest College from taking advantage of students, and could be a model for other states.
Another bill sponsored by Pollet makes sure that college students don’t lose part of their financial aid to fees charged by prepaid debit card companies. Under the law, students can’t be forced to use a prepaid debit card to access their financial aid, and must have access to ATMs that don’t charge fees to access their aid.
Ranker shepherded through a bill that creates a new program for kids in the foster-care system that will help them pursue two paths after high school: college, or an apprenticeship.
Based on the state’s “Passport to College” program – which gives 16-year-olds in the state foster-care system assistance in preparing for college – the new program begins at an earlier age, and encompasses a broader number of students who could use help.
The program, “Passport to Careers,” will begin helping students at age 13, and will include homeless students, students in the tribal foster-care system, and students who move here from other states but remain in their home state’s foster-care system, Ranker said.
It will help not only with college advice, but also aid students who aren’t interested in attending college find work-based apprenticeships. Inslee has made growing the state’s apprenticeship program a top priority of his administration.
Foster kids have very low college-going rates, but Ranker said students who participate in “Passport to College” were 50 percent more likely to go to college. The expanded program will cost $559,000 in 2019.
Among the other higher education-related laws that also passed this session:
– Lawmakers passed a bill that allows students who came to this country illegally as children to get state money to help pay for college under the College Bound scholarship program.
– A new state law requires student-loan servicers to be licensed by the state and creates a student-loan advocacy office, although it could face a legal challenge from the federal Department of Education, which claims states have no legal authority to regulate the industry.
– The state’s prepaid tuition program, Guaranteed Education Tuition, will offer investors an incentive to roll their funds over to a new state 529 college investment plan.
– The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, a public-private partnership, was amended so that it can offer aid to students who want to get workforce certificates and degrees at community and technical colleges.