Editorial: Promise program would open community college for more

By The Herald Editorial Board

The good news that we’ve reported before, courtesy of a report by the Washington Roundtable, is that between now and 2021 Washington state can expect about 740,000 jobs that will need to be filled, boosting employment and the state’s economy.

There’s a challenge in filling those positions. Only about 150,000 of those jobs will be available to those whose education has topped out at a high school diploma or GED. About 260,000 will be open to those with at least four years of college. But 330,000 of those jobs will require employees with some level of post-secondary education, such as an associate of arts degree from a community college or a training program certification from a state technical college.

Currently, however, only about 31 percent of those completing high school in Washington state will earn post-secondary credentials by the time their 26, as noted by the Roundtable, a policy center led by senior executives of some of the state’s major private employers. The organization has outlined a program to increase that percentage to 70 percent by 2030.

Still among the obstacles for many to post-secondary degrees are the costs of tuition, textbooks and other related costs.

Bills in both the House and Senate, HB 1840 and SB 5666, would establish the Washington Promise program, which, to start, would provide a stipend for tuition and fees for low-income students, eventually expanding the program to students from middle-income families.

The program would serve two goals: It would increase the availability of a post-secondary education for those who, even with other financial aid, still find it difficult to fully fund an education. And the program could encourage those still in high school to earn a diploma with the assurance that they can count on a college education.

Introduced by Seattle Democrats Rep. Gerry Pollet and Sen. David Frockt, the legislation would phase in the Promise program, opening with a “13th year,” up to three quarters of study, for those whose families make less than 70 percent of the state’s median income. As of 2015, Washington state’s median annual income, meaning half made more and half made less, was $62,108.

Eligible students would have to earn a high school diploma or GED and maintain a 2.0 grade point average while enrolled.

In following years, the program would be expanded to two years of tuition and fees and the income eligibility would increase to include those whose families earn no more than 100 percent of the state’s median income.

The program is based on similar statewide Promise programs in Oregon and Tennessee, as well as a “13th year” scholarship offered at South Seattle Community College to graduates of Seattle’s Cleveland, Chief Sealth and Rainier Beach high schools.

The legislation includes provisions for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges and the state Institute for Public Policy to gather information on the program and evaluate its effectiveness.

Similar legislation was proposed last year, and advanced through a House committee but no further. One difference between last year’s and this year’s bills: Last year’s bills voided the act if the Legislature failed to fund the program; this year’s bills would ask the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges to implement it at some colleges, suggesting it seek matching support from local governments and private groups.

The value of the program’s investment in students and the state’s economy, however, should be clear to lawmakers, who should allocate the funding in the state’s budget and keep this Promise.

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