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News / Clark County News

Washington leads nation in need-based aid, still struggles to retain students

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 7, 2024, 2:03pm

Washington offers more need-based financial aid to undergraduate students than any other state in the country. Yet college enrollment is stagnant, students are struggling to fill out the application for federal assistance and millions of dollars in aid are being left unclaimed.

“Washington is trying, but why the students aren’t showing up is the $64,000 question,” said Bill Zumeta, an emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Washington. “It seems to be a fundamental thing: People in the state are not college-oriented to the extent you would expect.”

Washington offered an estimated $2,008.23 per full-time undergraduate in the 2021-2022 cycle, according to the most recent data available from the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs. Neighboring Oregon and Idaho offered $810.77 and $249.75, respectively, of the same need-based funding per student.

Experts in the field say there’s no one simple fix. Washington is a large state with both urban and rural areas, a robust community college system and a history of available jobs in industries that don’t require a degree. For students to take better advantage of the available aid, they need to know their options, leaders in education say.

Grant dollars

Estimated Need-based Undergraduate Grant Dollars per Full-time Undergraduate for 2021-2022

Washington — $2,008.23

New Jersey— $1,790.39

Virginia— $1,551.62

California— $1,496.42

Illinois— $1,186.63

— National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs

“In the East, colleges are all over the place. You may not come from a family with degrees, but you maybe know someone who does or works at a college,” said Mike Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council.

The council is a state agency working to shape and research education policy across the state. Its goal is for 70 percent of Washington’s adults to have some form of postsecondary degree.

“We think simple communications can help raise awareness,” he said. “But if we want to drive bigger change, the way that young people will think differently about this is if they hear constant communications on the ground where they live and go to school.”

Available aid

Need-based aid has been Washington’s prominent form of aid for 40 years, Zumeta said. In 2019, the Legislature bolstered it further with the introduction of the Washington College Grant.

The grant program is available to all Washington residents pursuing any type of postsecondary degree, whether a two-year or four-year program, private or state university, trade apprenticeship or certificate. Students in a family of four making $73,000 or less can be eligible to receive free tuition.

Putting need-based aid first, experts said, is a more equitable approach to getting students to secondary education. Meotti said Monday that in the three years following the adoption of the Washington College Grant, more high school seniors on the free and reduced-price lunch program are completing the application for federal aid known as FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The completion rate among those students increased by 6 percentage points.

Merit-based aid, on the other hand, typically rewards higher-performing students only, which is typically a less ethnically and socioeconomically diverse community of students.

“Usually in a merit-based program, the top five or top 10 students from every high school get a scholarship. That’s the Georgia model,” Meotti said.

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The policies could come from a “political aversion” to aiding low-income populations, he said, or perhaps simply as an effort to get the state’s highest-performing students to stay at home for postsecondary learning.

Georgia, for example, was second among all states in total grant dollars awarded per undergraduate students in 2021-2022. However, it offers next to no need-based aid, averaging just $2.15 per undergraduate student in that period.

The University of Washington and Washington State University are far and away Washington’s leaders in need-based financial aid. In the 2022-2023 school year, the school systems awarded $117 million and $65 million in aid to more than 20,000 students under the Washington College Grant alone.

In Clark County last year, Clark College offered Washington College Grant funding to 2,398 students and WSU Vancouver offered Washington College Grant funding to 1,415 students.

Bolstering outreach

Jenee Myers-Twitchell and Tana Peterman work for Washington STEM, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on aiding educational service districts in making schools and educators aware of postsecondary opportunities.

As it stands, Myers-Twitchell said the components of education in Washington — early learning, K-12, community colleges and four-year institutions — are “pretty siloed” from each other. There isn’t one major governing body linking these areas of education, like in many other states.

“We want to build regional capacity for these services,” said Myers-Twitchell, Washington STEM’s chief impact officer. “There are educational service districts that support with teaching and learning. There’s the Washington Student Achievement Council that helps with policy. But there’s not really many resources for supporting K-12 with getting kids to the next level.”

Just 42.3 percent of high school seniors in Washington filled out a FAFSA application in the 2022-2023 cycle — ranking Washington 49th among U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Experts including Zumeta expect the FAFSA completion rate to remain low this year, especially due to the delayed opening of the new application form.

“Any time you change the formula, there’s winners and losers,” Zumeta said. “But long-term this will be a good thing. Broadly speaking, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.”

Washington STEM is in the midst of surveying 10,000 high school students across the state to ask their thoughts on postsecondary education. So far, 90 percent of students say they want to pursue some form of postsecondary education, primarily at four-year institutions, Myers-Twitchell said.

“We are definitely not in a state where student aspirations are low,” Myers-Twitchell said.

Myers-Twitchell said part of the challenge could be educators themselves not being fully aware of just how robust the Washington College Grant is and inadvertently steering them from four-year options for fear of saddling them with debt.

“The balance in this work is that while we have low enrollment, we have the people who can help us make informed changes,” said Peterman, a program officer at Washington STEM. “It’s not impossible, it’s not doomsday. It just requires us to work differently.”