Higher ed financial aid in peril

Legislators told programs could suffer even without state cuts



OLYMPIA — Higher education financial aid programs may suffer with or without state cuts, leaving college students with fewer options.

“They’re not decisions any of us would say we want to do. But in the scope of bad decisions, it has the least impact, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, said at Tuesday’s meting of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

The purpose of the meeting was to review the State Need Grant and State Work Study program, which is in danger of being suspended under the governor’s budget proposal.

Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance for the Higher Education Coordinating Board, showed legislators the increasing need for financial assistance across the state as enrollment rises along with tuition.

According to Sharpe, the number of students requiring financial aid increased significantly during the economic downturn, with a 61 percent increase in the number of students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid since 2007-2008.

Additional strain is placed on these financial aid programs as university enrollment and tuition increase.

Washington State University Vancouver has seen an increase in both areas. The branch campus saw a 1.5 percent enrollment surge this year — to 3,143 full-time students — as well as a 16 percent tuition hike.

Washington State University’s State work study allocation was reduced 55 percent from last year to approximately $588,000. The university’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships estimates that 650 students will earn an estimated $900 in the program this year, including 33 students at the Vancouver campus.

Due to the increased enrollment and demand for financial aid, the State Need Grant and work study program may suffer even if they are not cut.

“In the 2011-13 budget, they provided enough funding to keep pace with tuition but did not increase the number of students who were served by it. So we’re probably expecting another 26,000 to not be served who are eligible,” Sharpe said of the State Need Grant, which would require a change in policy to better serve students. Additionally, the work study program was cut by two-thirds, leaving fewer opportunities for students despite a rising demand.

If the State Work Study program is suspended in 2012-13, it would save $8.1 million in the budget. The effects of the suspension would impact an estimated 3,500 students, and put nearly 40 years of program development at risk, Sharpe said.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, who sits on the higher education committee, said he recognized the need for everything to be on the table but stressed the important connection between the economy and education, which could be damaged with the loss of these financial aid programs.

“Every time we drop a student from continuing their college education, we’re doing long-term damage to that student’s life and our own economy,” Probst said. “We are making cuts now that will cost us more in the future.”