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Dec. 4, 2022

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In Our View: State’s college grants expand opportunity

The Columbian
Published:

The Washington College Grant, which provides $424 million in assistance to students in the state, is believed to be the nation’s most generous state-run financial aid program. And new data suggests that it amounts to a hand up more than a hand out.

An analysis from the Washington Student Achievement Council, a government agency, shows that financial aid is effective in generating economic mobility among students.

The recently released study tracked 44,050 public high school graduates who received aid and went on to graduate from a public college or university. All students who came from families with household incomes below $63,000 saw their economic status rise within three years of earning a degree and entering the labor force.

Meanwhile, young adults from families at the lowest quartile ($35,000 in annual household income) were soon earning more than their parents’ total pay. This was true whether students graduated from a two- or four-year college.

The Washington College Grant program provides varying amounts of assistance based on family income, family size and tuition costs. As the program’s website explains: “An eligible student from a family of four with income of $64,500 or less per year would get a full award. … Public college tuition would likely be free for a family with three children and a single parent making $28 per hour.”

A four-year degree is not the only path to improved economic status. Washington also must invest in training programs for skilled trades and other potential careers. But data demonstrating the benefits of a college degree are encouraging at a time when many people question its value.

Nationally, college enrollment has declined by approximately 1 million students since 2019. Much of that is due to the pandemic, but a report last month from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicated the decline has continued this fall. The point of financial aid is not to suggest that all high school graduates should attend college, but to make higher education accessible for those with the desire and the acumen to pursue it.

For students who make it through college, the benefits are clear, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council study. “The striking consistency of upward mobility across the most disadvantaged demographic groups suggests that completing a postsecondary degree is an essential lever for improving intergenerational economic opportunities,” Executive Director Michael Meotti told The Seattle Times.

The impact is particularly profound for students growing up in homes where English is not the first language. As reported by the Times, family income for those students was 40 percent less than other high school students on average. Yet within three years of graduating from college, nonnative English speakers were earning wages comparable to their peers.

Upward mobility long has been conflated with the American Dream. The idea that just about anybody can reach the middle class through hard work is an ethos our nation has aspired to but often not embraced. The G.I. Bill after World War II, for example, was significant in creating a robust middle class but was largely closed to African American veterans.

Yet regardless of related immigration or racial issues, the point is that financial aid can help provide opportunity and accessibility for all Americans. By increasing economic mobility and helping to develop productive taxpayers, it is a worthy investment in our nation’s future.

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