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News / Northwest

Last year, Washington lawmakers made college free for some. This year, they want to make it more accessible.

By Hannah Furfaro, The Seattle Times
Published: January 16, 2020, 11:30am

Would Washingtonians benefit from a single application form for all the state’s public colleges? And if college costs were more transparent, would student debt drop?

Washington lawmakers intend to debate these pressing questions beginning Thursday, when Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib is scheduled to testify in support of several higher-education bills at the Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

Last year, Washington drew national attention for the Legislature’s move to make college more affordable. For some, tuition became free. But if last year was about bringing down the cost of college, this session is about making sure people can take advantage of it.

To start, lawmakers hope to simplify the college-application process and make it easier to access financial aid.

“Getting that tuition paid is not enough. There are so many other institutional and cost barriers,” said Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton. “This year is about making sure we continue to clear barriers out of the way for these students.”

One roadblock? Knowing which grant and loan programs exist.

Randall is sponsoring a bill requiring school districts to hold at least one financial-aid day a year. The bill leaves it up to districts to pick a day when high school seniors and their families could learn about state and federal aid programs — and hopefully, receive help filling out financial-aid forms.

Washington has one of the worst financial-aid completion rates in the nation: only 55% of the state’s graduates filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, last school year. Many find the form complicated or don’t know they’re eligible for aid, a survey from the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) found.

School counselors in many districts already hold financial-aid nights, such as in Seattle Public Schools, where financial-aid form completion tends to be strong. About 70% of Seattle seniors filled out the FAFSA last school year, officials said.

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“The informational nights often get really large numbers,” said Krista Rillo, a Seattle district counselor who said roughly 50 to 100 people show up at each high school’s event.

Also on the table: a bill that would make college costs more transparent. If it’s approved, acceptance letters to any of the state’s public colleges would provide students with the estimated cost to earn a degree. These letters would also list financial-aid options, said bill sponsor Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place.

“It’s really hard if you go to the varying [colleges’] websites to figure out what the costs are,” she said. If acceptance letters included those figures, as well as financial-aid options, “you don’t have the sticker shock of knowing this is what it’s going to take.”

Randall’s bill would also attempt to make college costs more transparent by creating an online financial-aid calculator. This measure and a few others, such as legislation creating a common application to the state’s public colleges, are part of a higher-education package Habib is pushing. Officials are still working to estimate how much these policy changes would cost, said Kristina Brown, executive director of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

“We tried to build on what we did last year,” she said. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do on policy improvements.”

The common-application bill, for instance, would replace each public college’s individual application with a single form. Instead of filling out the same demographic information and answering similar questions multiple times, students would do this once. Private colleges could opt in to the statewide application, Brown said.

Students would still pay application fees to each school they apply to, said Leavitt, who supports the legislation.

The common-application bill has bipartisan support: Rep. Skyler Rude, a Walla Walla Republican, is a co-sponsor and called the idea “fantastic.”

Some states, such as California, use a single application for some or all public schools. Nationwide, the Common Application and lesser-used Coalition Application were also created to streamline the college application process. Hundreds of colleges use these forms; the University of Washington, for instance, uses the Coalition Application.

The University of Washington and Washington State University haven’t staked out positions on this bill or any of the other higher-education measures, officials said.

But some officials raised caution about the common-application legislation, saying it might create unintended consequences. At the national level, new research suggests the Common Application has made colleges more competitive, and crowded out lower-performing students in the process. Locally, some say, students filling out a single form might be less motivated to investigate all of their options — such as whether certain schools operate in more than one location, as WSU does.

“People simply checking a box may not even realize there are more locations they could be going to school,” said Phil Weiler, spokesperson for WSU, who said students might presume that attending WSU means living on its main campus in Pullman. A “common application is a little bit of a blunt instrument. We need to help students figure out what’s the best fit for them.”