Friday, March 24, 2023
March 24, 2023

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Cost is a major barrier to college, new survey of Washingtonians finds


It’s been clear for some time that Washington needs to increase the number of students it sends to get an education beyond high school.

More than two-thirds of the state’s new jobs over the next five years will require some schooling beyond high school, according to projections from consulting firm Kinetic West. Yet 53% of Washington’s high school graduates do not acquire additional training or a college degree in the eight years following graduation, state data show for the Class of 2013. A little less than half of the state’s total population, including those who went to high school elsewhere, are college educated.

A new survey of Washingtonians without postsecondary credentials suggests that while some don’t see the need to get additional schooling, most see higher education as valuable, but face cost barriers and other obstacles.

That’s an encouraging finding, said Neil Strege, vice president of policy for the Washington Roundtable, the advocacy organization that commissioned the survey.

A polling firm conducted the survey, which included a demographically representative sample of 800 Washington state adults, and Kinetic West interpreted the results. The Roundtable is composed of executives from several influential Washington companies, including Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and The Seattle Times.

The state has worked for years to build one of the most generous financial aid systems in the country. But with cost as the most frequently cited barrier, it also confirms what has long been known about the state’s higher education gap — many students don’t know about the aid that’s available to them.

In Washington, fewer students fill out the FAFSA, the federal form that assesses eligibility for tuition assistance, than almost any other state in the country. Completing that form is critical to knowing what kind of aid a person might receive to go to college, including the Washington College Grant, which provides full tuition to state-run colleges and universities for eligible students, and the Seattle Promise, which offers all graduates of Seattle public high schools two free years of tuition at one of the city’s three community college campuses.

The job of bringing those numbers up falls on the entire state — K-12 schools, community organizations and parents, said Strege.

That information gap underscores the importance of the state’s ongoing efforts to promote awareness about the FAFSA, said Strege. But it also means the state needs to continue resolving the other cost barriers for college, not just tuition.

“It doesn’t cover all the other things going on,” said Strege. “Housing, food, child care, the things it takes to live.”

The Legislature recently approved a $500 annual grant for eligible students to help offset some of these costs, but the Roundtable is also seeking other forms of relief for students, such as free college credits for students who participate in college classes inside their high schools. Students in Running Start, which allows teens to take community college while they’re in high school, still have to pay for textbooks and transportation.

Cost was a factor among those who were most resistant to further schooling — around 45% disagreed with a statement that they’d be better off with a secondary credential. But they also cited other factors, such as wanting to go straight into the workplace, or a belief they could get the necessary skills elsewhere.

The report suggests more investment in programs that allow students to work in the professions they want while earning a related degree, as well as arrangements where students can learn at their own pace. Personal stress over the process of enrolling was also cited as a leading barrier.