News: State Policy & Advocacy

New Washington Law Creates State Promise Program to Guarantee Need-Based Aid for Eligible Students

Tuesday, July 9, 2019  
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Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Workforce Education Investment Act into law earlier this year.

By guest blogger Juliette Schindler Kelly, Director of Public Affairs and Strategic Partnerships, College Success Foundation

On May 21, the hall outside Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee’s office was bustling. Students, higher education representatives, advocates, elected officials, and even business leaders congregated excitedly as the governor’s staff attempted to keep order.

Finally the moment arrived, and a limited number were ushered into Gov. Inslee’s office to witness the signing of House Bill 2158 (HB 2158), the Workforce Education Investment Act. After the signing, the governor and his spouse, Trudi Inslee, met with the expansive audience under the dome of the Washington State Capitol Building to celebrate the passage of this landmark higher education legislation.

How did this happen? And how is this policy different than – arguably superior to – other “free college” proposals?

Passage of the Workforce Education Investment Act succeeded due to a blend of skill, sweat, timing, and luck. It succeeded due to the alignment of the interests of the higher education community, business leaders, students, advocates, foundations, and the legislature. After multiple years of striving to fulfill the state’s constitutional “paramount duty” to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders” in the state capital, the attention turned from basic education to other areas seen as necessary but neglected, including higher education.

The urgency came largely from members of the business community who highlighted the gap between the fast-growing workforce needs of Washington state and the lagging production of workforce-ready graduates. With 740,000 projected job openings by 2021, there are exciting job prospects for young people growing up in Washington state. But in most cases, a postsecondary credential is required to compete for these opportunities. And little progress was being made in reaching the 70% postsecondary credential attainment goal that the state and the Washington Roundtable had been pursuing for years.

Business leaders, led by high-tech giants Microsoft and Amazon, rallied behind the legislation and even led the skin-in-the-game discussion by expressing willingness to pay more of the proposed tax. The Workforce Education Investment Account that the bill creates will raise almost $1 billion over a four-year period. These dollars will come from a business and occupation tax surcharge on companies that employ highly-skilled workers, like accounting, engineering, architecture, and consulting firms, with a higher rate for the technology giants in the state. The business community also felt the legislation was a win in that it includes resources for career-connected learning and apprenticeships.

Additionally, this landmark legislation was strongly backed by technical, community, private, and nonprofit colleges and universities.

Another key to the success of this bill was strong involvement by students themselves. The student engagement work was led by a group convened by an association for private, nonprofit schools, the Independent Colleges of WA.

Lastly, success was possible due to the current political environment: One party (Democrats) controlled both chambers and the governor’s office. This unique opportunity leveraged a collective alignment and pent-up demand from legislative leadership for progress on financial aid, particularly full funding for the state’s need-based aid program, the State Need Grant (SNG).

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee pose with bill sponsors and a group of HB 2158 advocates on the steps of the rotunda in the Legislative Building (under the Capitol Dome).

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the newly created law. In fact, advocates are reminding each other of the importance of defending against the threat of an initiative surfacing to overturn the legislation. Many smaller business and health care professionals privately or publicly objected to the business and occupation tax structure that will fund the higher education account.

Barring repeal, Washington state is now the leader in comprehensive need-based aid, as recognized by experts around the country. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education at Temple University and a national thought leader in higher education affordability, praised the efficiency, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of the bill in a New York Times article.

The new law is multifaceted, but the WA College Grant, the successor to the Washington State Need Grant (SNG), is a worthy of its own spotlight. It will replace the SNG in the 2020-21 academic year with guaranteed, first-in funding for all eligible students. In addition, the program will be expanded by increasing the eligibility threshold from students from families that make 70% of the state’s median family income (MFI) to 100% MFI. It will also provide new prorated awards up to 55% MFI and introduce apprenticeship awards. The funding is based on tuition plus fees, but it can be used to cover other costs of attendance.

Removing the financial obstacles to education frees up the time and expertise of the adults in young scholars’ lives to help them navigate the pathway to and through college and success in life. And for the thousands of first-generation, low-to-middle-income students in Washington state – no matter their age or citizenship – who will now have access to postsecondary education, this legislation is a game changer. With a caring adult to help our young people navigate the journey, and advocates standing by to help address obstacles that may arise, many more students will access college and persist in their pursuit of a postsecondary degree and a career. An even bigger win will be for other states and the U.S. Congress to watch and learn from Washington’s legislative success and implementation, and scale the replicable lessons across the nation.

(Photos courtesy of the College Success Foundation)