OLYMPIA — The College Bound Scholarship for Washington students is being reworked to reach more students across the state.
Currently, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches during the seventh or eighth grade sign a form with their guardian pledging to graduate with at least a C average and without a felony conviction.
If students remain in Washington for their post-secondary education and their families fall below 65% of median state income, the student could be awarded up to $12,000 per year after other state and federal aid is taken into account.
SB 5321, which passed out of the Senate in a 31-18 vote, removes the pledge-form requirement and develops an auto-enrolment system for eligible students in the seventh and eighth grades.
The 18 Republicans who voted against the bill said they thought auto-enrollment would increase costs too much.
“I think we should go back to the drawing board on this program and focus it on those who show they can succeed and want to succeed,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, “and pare it down to those who are truly financially needy.”
But Tacoma middle school counselor Tristan Allen said she thinks the forms are an extreme and unintended barrier to college aid for many students.
“In my 11 years of personal experience, I’ve found that countless hours are wasted on trying to sign students up with these forms,” Allen said.
According to Allen, this comes at the expense of students who can no longer rely on counselors for meaningful conversations. The pandemic has made in-person meetings especially difficult.
The Washington Student Achievement Council said it has found the scholarship system doesn’t just help students with finances during their college careers. According to its website, students in the program also have higher rates of high school graduation and college enrollment compared to eligible students who don’t enroll in the program.
Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, said removing the form requirement opens opportunities to an additional 10,000 students a year, but students who have committed offenses still are not well served.
Nearly 40% of youth in the juvenile detention system are also in the foster care system, with education often being the key to avoid reentering the system, according to Katherine Mahoney of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“We don’t believe it makes sense to withhold educational access from young people who’ve committed offenses,” Mahoney said. “We know that education is a key anti-recidivism tool.”
Nobles said the original intent was to remove all eligibility criteria except for the free or reduced-price lunch requirement, but recent experience in legislation shows this isn’t the best step forward.
“In essence, we wanted any qualifying student to have the funds for college,” Nobles said. “The tradeoff is, if we don’t provide some type of criteria, it’s harder to hold the state accountable down the line.”
Nobles said if robust criteria aren’t set in the beginning, the bill would be in a similar boat as the SNAP or GAU programs where, as the funds began to decline, so too did access to the programs.
“However, my colleagues and I don’t want this to be a tradeoff down the line,” she said. “We want to find the strongest legislation to expand access to more students. We also want to make sure that years down the line, we’re still doing what’s best for them.”