In Our View: Help for Students

Middle-income families would benefit from ‘Opportunity Scholarships’

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With tuition rates soaring by double-digit percentages in the past two years — and likely in each of the next two years — Washingtonians are left to wonder: Who’s standing up for the students? On Tuesday, the answer came in the form of a specific number: 84. That’s the number of state representatives who voted for a bill that would create an innovative public-private partnership to assist middle-income students.

House Bill 2088, prime sponsored by state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, is an excellent approach to increasing access to higher education in tough economic times. And the fact that only eight state representatives opposed it (fortunately, none from Clark County’s three major legislative districts) proves that common sense crosses all party lines. As the Legislature heads into the final week of its special session, Washington residents should hope the Senate adds its approval to Probst’s bill.

Two big dogs from the business world — Microsoft and Boeing — have added their support to the proposal that would be financed with $20 million in privately raised funds. A match from the state would create “Opportunity Scholarships.”

What makes HB 2088 especially attractive is that it targets students from middle-income families who currently do not qualify for assistance from the state even as tuition rates increase. Lowest-income students benefit from the State Need Grants, which are awarded to individuals with family income up to 70 percent of the median family income. Recipients of Opportunity Scholarships would have family income at or below 125 percent of the median family income. Currently, that is $97,500 for a family of four.

Generally, the grants would be $1,000 each or the difference between tuition charged in the 2008-2009 academic year and the academic year for which a scholarship is being granted.

Flexibility is built into the plan as an Opportunity Scholarship Board would be created to identify eligible education and training programs, and the administrator could adjust amounts awarded. Appropriate safeguards are built into the proposal. For example, the state match on payments would be capped at $50 million annually. Another advantage in HB 2088 is that it would help students enter fields of high employer demand.

Last week, the Legislature passed House Bill 1795, which grants tuition-setting authority to major public universities in the state, and that measure included provisions for financial aid for middle-income students. However, as noted in testimony for the Probst bill, tuition must be more than $15,000 per year for those provisions of HB 1795 to kick in. This latest bill removes that requirement.

The term “shared sacrifice” is heard often in public-funding debates during these tough economic times. And higher education students have shown they’re willing to make their own sacrifices. Indeed, even as tuition rates climb, enrollment has remained steady, or is increasing at some universities. This means students are willing to take first or second jobs to pay for school, or they’re willing to take on more debt, or both. But in the face of all this, those students need help from the rest of us, particularly if they’re in the low- or middle-income brackets.

The “rest of us” does not have to be just the government, and by setting up a public-private partnership, Probst and other lawmakers have designed a dual support system that higher-education students need and deserve.