Proposed bill would provide free college tuition to some students

OLYMPIA— A proposal to establish the Evergreen Free College Program would phase in funding to pay tuition for students from low- and middle-income families.

SB 6101 would apply to state residents enrolled in a state university or community college with 45 credits and maintaining a grade point average of 2.0 or above. A student would also have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or Washington Application for State Financial Aid each year.

“Just as important as making sure lowest and lower-income children go to college, we need to make sure those in the middle class are not forgotten,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

He said the State Need Grant, a scholarship program for the lowest income bracket, has done great work in helping low income students go to college, but his bill addresses a critical gap in education funding. In order for the state to be equitable, he said, Washington state needs to fully fund the State Need Grant and provide funding for his bill.

The State Need Grant provides need-based financial aid to students in higher education who have a household income that is less than 70 percent of the state’s median family income, which is based on the number of family members. For example, using a state Department of Social and Health Services formula, a family of four making less than $5,100 per month would qualify.

The proposed Evergreen Free College Program asks for $11.5 million for the biennium it would be introduced in, starting in 2019, and a total of less than $14 million for the four-year outlook period. These costs would come out of the general fund. Ranker said it’s a smart investment in the state’s youth.

“It’s a bold step in the right direction and we better take it because the issues of income have become insurmountable,” he said.

Becca Kenna-Schenk is on the Council of Presidents at Western Washington University. She said at least 20,000 students who qualify for the State Need Grant do not receive any help from the government because of the lack of funding to the program.

“The higher-education community stands united,” she said. “Fully funding the State Need Grant needs to be a top priority in the Legislature.”

The free college program would have a six-step phase-in period based on education level and family income. The period phases in awards starting with one year of support in the 2019-20 academic year and ending with 12 quarters, or about four years of support, in the 2024-25 academic year.

The bill was heard Feb. 5 in the Senate Ways and Means Committee and lawmakers voted Feb. 6 to move it on to the Rules Committee.

Washington state also has other programs meant to assist students with low income backgrounds, including the College Bound Scholarship that students apply for in middle school, and the Passport to College Promise Scholarship Program which assists youth emerging from foster care.

— Taylor McAvoy is a reporter for the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

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