Two students walk along a path through campus, Aug. 4, 2022, at Everett Community College in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Two students walk along a path through campus, Aug. 4, 2022, at Everett Community College in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Year of free college a boost to students, state

Legislation would fund a year of community college tuition to increase enrollment and degrees.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Like the old saw about a horse and water, you can offer the promise of financial aid to high school students; the trick is in getting them to fill out a FAFSA.

Washington state ranks among the bottom of U.S. states for completion of the Federal Application for Financial Student Aid, or its Washington state counterpart, key to qualifying for financial aid that can include grants, low-interest federal loans and work-study programs that can help students and their families fund college toward degrees or other post-secondary certification.

As of this fall, only about 52 percent of high school graduates in Washington state had completed the FAFSA, and as recently as 2022, it ranked 49th among states, with an application completion rate of just 37.7 percent, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council.

And, despite the current low unemployment rate, students looking ahead after high school and their families should be concerned if their plans don’t include post-secondary study, whether that’s at a four-year university or college or a two-year community or technical college; because the difference is between a job and one that pays well.

Washington has added more than 500,000 jobs since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, and employers are expected to add another 500,000 by 2030, according to a recent report on post-secondary enrollment by the Washington Roundtable, which represents the state’s employers. There’s a preference for hiring locally, but more of the jobs those businesses will be looking to fill require higher skill levels and proof of those skills in the form of degrees, apprenticeships and industry-aligned certificates and licenses.

Not surprisingly, the drop in financial aid applications has followed the trend for college enrollment, which also took a dive during the pandemic, a plunge that is only now beginning to show some signs of recovery, yet was lower than deemed necessary to fill the demand for skilled workers before the pandemic.

Fall 2023 enrollment in post-secondary schools was down 12.3 percent compared to 2019 pre-pandemic numbers, the equivalent of more than 10,700 students. More recently there are signs the drop still hasn’t leveled off, with the most recent fall enrollment down 1.1 percent from 2022 numbers. The pandemic impact hit the state’s 34 community and technical colleges even harder, an 18.4 percent decline — 40,725 students — comparing fall 2023 to 2019 numbers.

One bit of good news, community and technical college enrollment between this fall and fall 2022 is up 7.6 percent overall and 8.5 percent for students of color.

Still, there’s a long climb ahead for enrollment, and increasing access to financial aid could encourage a thirst-quenching quaff.

A bill now before the state Legislature, the Washington 13 Free Guarantee (House Bill 2309), essentially offers a 13th grade of free education, providing up to 45 credits of tuition-free community or technical college to eligible students, regardless of income. While students would have two academic years to complete requirements, it essentially covers the first year of study at a community or technical college.

To qualify, students would have to have graduated from a state high school or earned an equivalent certificate; enroll in a college that serves the school district the student graduated from; complete the FAFSA or the state’s financial aid application; and maintain satisfactory progress.

One smart part of this comes in requiring completion of the financial aid application process, which will put students on a path toward securing further financial aid toward degree completion.

And while the program would be open to all students, regardless of income, one part of it focuses its aid on those students with family incomes that fall between 65 percent to 140 percent of the state’s median family income. That provision addresses a gap in funding; those families with incomes below 65 percent of the state’s median income are aided through current state and federal programs, while those families with incomes above 150 percent of median generally can meet a student’s tuition and other costs.

Current funding programs, said Rep. Steve Bergquist, D-Renton, the legislation’s primary sponsor, have created a “canyon of affordability.”

Bergquist has crafted the bill after a pilot program he started in Renton, where he teaches 10th-grade social studies, the Spokesman-Review reported. The Renton pilot porgram improved enrollment at Renton Technical College from a typical 50 students each year to 85 students last fall.

The state program’s costs would be split among three revenue sources: the state’s general fund, the Washington College Grant and the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program, a 529 plan that allows families to purchase tuition credits for students’ future use.

While the legislation passed out of the House’s Post-secondary Education and Workforce Committee with bipartisan support, with only two of 13 members voting against it, one lawmaker, Rep. Cyndy Jacobsen, R-Puyallup, urged fellow legislators to strike the use of the GET reserves from the program because that support was provided “on the backs of parents” who had paid into the GET program.

The state should be cautious about how it uses such funds, but the program, which is managed by the state’s investment board, invests parent contributions to provide enough for future needs and assure a healthy reserve. Currently the GET program is funded at 150 percent above what it will need to provide tuition to the program’s enrollees, and is expected to grow to 500 percent in the next 10 years. The program’s current surplus is estimated at more than $500 million, of which about $300 million would be used to support the 13 Free Guarantee.

A companion piece of legislation, the Washington Promise Program (HB 2374), was seen as further encouragement for prospective students, offering 90 credits of tuition, essentially a second-year of community or technical college. But the bill did not advance out of committee.

Passage for the 13 Free Guarantee also is not assured; it has a deadline to pass out of the House by Feb. 13, before it gets a shot at consideration in the Senate.

Evidence supports such free-tuition programs. A 2020 working paper by the Federal Trade Commission estimated that such programs provide a 26 percent increase in enrollment, with 86 percent of the increase at community colleges among students who otherwise would not have attended post-secondary education. Additionally, the same research found a 22 percent increase in degree completion.

If Washington state is to continue to build on its strong economic standing — No. 13 in the judgment of U.S. News and World Report, and No. 1 in WalletHub’s rankings — it will need to increase enrollment in post-secondary schools to ensure a labor force that can do the work required at all levels of employment. More importantly, the families in the state need jobs that provide a living that supports them and their hopes for their children.

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