Washington state’s new financial aid program serves today’s students those who hire them

Last March, the Seattle Times ran a powerful joint opinion editorial cowritten by Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith. Joining him were University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce and then-Vice Chairman of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, Wayne Martin. 

Their position: Let’s lift up Washington families and businesses by creating a dedicated workforce education fund that supports affordable, accessible opportunities for education past high school. Washington state, they said, could not afford to return to the desperate days of the Great Recession, when higher education budgets were slashed and tuition increased by double-digits.

The editorial propelled the Legislature to create the “Workforce Education Investment Act.” Among other things, the legislation created a new financial aid program to tear down financial barriers for today’s students. 

Starting in fall 2020, a family of four making $50,500 or less will receive a full financial aid award — enough to fully cover the cost of tuition at any Washington public college or university. The financial aid extends to families who earn all the way up to the state’s median family income, which is now about $92,000; as family incomes go up, award levels go down. 

The grant program will be fully funded, which means no more wait lists. Eligible students are guaranteed financial aid even if they wait until later in the year to fill out their financial aid applications. This is especially important to community and technical college students, who are more likely than university students to fill out financial aid applications and go to college after fall quarter, depending on when they can wedge college into other life responsibilities.

Another benefit: The Washington College grant is “first in.”  Students can still get other types of financial aid, like the federal Pell Grant, without a reduction in their state financial aid award. This creates a higher combined amount, allowing students to cover other living expenses — like child care, transportation, utilities and rent — which is just as important to their success as paying the tuition bill.

Of course, getting more students into college isn’t the only answer. Moving them to the finish line is equally important. The same legislation that created the Washington College Grant also made investments in support services for students. Among other things, the investments supported “Guided Pathways at our 34 community and technical colleges.

With the Guided Pathways approach, colleges simplify course choices, grouping courses together to form clear paths through college and into careers, whether students start those careers right after college graduation or transfer to a university for more study. Students receive step-by-step road maps to completion, so they are less likely to meander and more likely to graduate on time. Advisors and support services help students choose a path and stay on-target to completion.

Today’s students work and raise families, change jobs more frequently and have less job security. They are more diverse in race, age and income. They include younger students straight out of high school and working adults who are trying to stay marketable in a fast-changing economy. 

The Guided Pathways approach serves these students by fundamentally redesigning the college experience, especially for who are the first in their families to go to college. 

The Washington Roundtable — an influential organization of industry leaders — came out in favor of the Guided Pathways approach. The Washington Roundtable has been among a chorus of voices warning our state to step up the pace in preparing people for the 740,000 job openings expected in the next few years. Most of those jobs will require education past high school. 

Businesses are also partnering with high schools, colleges and universities to provide “Career Connected Learning” opportunities, also funded by the Workforce Education Investment Act. These programs give high school students and young adults hands-on, paid work experience as part of their studies, building their interests, skills and qualifications.

Not unexpectedly, the Washington Roundtable and other business organizations are not in favor of the business-and-occupation-tax surcharge that funds the Workforce Education Investment Act. That said, they are powerful advocates for, and partners in, expanding higher education opportunities for Washingtonians. We are all in this together.

Washington state’s Workforce Education Investment Act is exactly that — an investment in Washington’s students and the employers who will ultimately hire them. It’s an investment that will pay off many times over in financially stable families, healthy communities and a thriving economy.