Homeless students deserve a shot at college

State Sen. Emily Randall writes that providing better access to education is a winning proposition

In today’s world, we know the highway to opportunity: higher education. Whether a certificate from a community and technical college or a four-year degree, higher education has become the pathway to a family-wage job and an expanding horizon of career growth. But for too many of our kids, that highway is off the map.

I know firsthand what higher education can do — I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. Both my grandfathers moved to Kitsap County to work at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and when I first thought about taking this path that none of my family had taken, I had no idea how to negotiate the mysterious world of applications, tuition, fees, housing costs and financial aid.

In the end, it turned out to be cheaper for me to attend Wellesley College — a private college 3,000 miles away — than the University of Washington or Western Washington University because of Wellesley’s generous financial aid and the state of Washington’s underinvestment in our higher ed trust fund.

And I don’t regret it for a moment — college opened up the world to me.

But I know that compared to many young people, I had it easy. So many potential students face barriers, from cost to health to work hours to childcare. One of the crises our colleges in Washington state are seeing today is the dramatic increase in students experiencing homelessness.

Students who have stories like that of Charles Adkins. I met Charles when he came to Olympia with a proposed bill to help connect students experiencing homelessness with the resources they need — a bill that came from his personal experience.

Charles spent the last three years of high school without a home. When his father, who had been fighting in Afghanistan, came back to their home with PTSD, he couldn’t leave the fight behind. As their arguments got worse — one even leading to his father’s arrest — Charles had to choose his safety over his home.

He tried to live a normal life attending Everett High School while crashing on friends’ couches. Eventually, his school counselor, now Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, helped him find stable housing. When he won a full scholarship to The Evergreen State College, he had taken a huge step on the pathway to a successful life and career.

But he still didn’t have a home. He didn’t even have anywhere to stay during winter break. Piecing together support from programs for military families, Native Americans and students experiencing homelessness got him to a stable situation, but it took an unusual amount of smarts, hard work and administrative savvy.

He put those skills to work this year in advocating for other students experiencing homelessness. Senate Bill 5800 creates pilot programs at six colleges across the state — two community and technical colleges and one four-year college on each side of the Cascades.

Each institution will assist students experiencing homelessness and students who were in foster care connect to services — aid that could include everything from short-term housing to laundry facilities, food banks, technology and case management services.

“Programs exist,” Charles says. “But there’s a gap between the people who know about them and the people who fall into these circumstances. It’s important to make sure that those who need services have someone with the knowledge who can tell them what’s available.”

Shannon Turner, the former student body president at Olympic College, also testifies to the gap between what’s out there and what students know about.

Shannon told me, “After I served in the Army for almost 17 years, I started out at OC paying for school myself and only later learned about the services available for veterans. I didn’t know how financial aid worked.”

While Shannon was president, the student government worked with Olympic College’s administration and SING (Students In Need Group) to educate potential and incoming students about funding options, resources and supports. Now, OC provides students with comprehensive information, including classes on how to apply for financial aid.

The state Legislature’s new pilot program is designed to build on and spread best practices like OC’s — and like the innovations that Tacoma Community College is implementing by designing Section 8 housing choice vouchers that are tied to spaces rather than to families so that they can be used by students. SB 5800 is just one part of the legislature’s work to expand educational opportunities.

This year, we also passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, which dramatically increased foundational support for community and technical colleges and created the Washington College Grant Program, a statewide, guaranteed free college program serving up to 110,000 low-income students. Quite simply, it’s the most generous need-based aid program in the nation.

As acting chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, I’ve been traveling around our state learning on the ground about the innovative new programs our colleges are implementing and how we can support them.

We’re working to provide opportunities for all students, regardless of their zip code or family income — so that we can educate Washington’s future nuclear technicians, welders, nurses, and, yes, even state senators — right here at home.

Washington State Sen. Emily Randall is a first-term legislator serving the 26th Legislative District. She was raised in Port Orchard and lives in Bremerton.