Financial aid may not keep pace with fast-rising tuition
The Legislature approved a big biennial increase in funding for the State Need Grant for low-income students, but it will only keep pace with double-digit tuition increases. And other student-aid programs have taken big financial hits.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
In a year when the Legislature slashed more than $4 billion from higher education, social services, health care and other areas, one program received an especially generous increase: financial aid for undergraduate college students.
The Legislature approved a 32 percent biennial increase in funding for the State Need Grant, the state's largest contribution of grant money — money that does not need to be repaid — to low-income students.
If it sounds like a major win for college students, though, consider that the State Need Grant increase will only keep pace with double-digit tuition hikes. It will help about 70,000 students, the same number as last year.
And about 22,000 students who qualified for State Need Grant money last year didn't receive it, because the state ran out of money. It's possible that the same number — or even more — may qualify again for state financial aid and receive nothing.
"I would say students definitely lost, in a lot of ways" during this legislative session, said Mike Bogatay, executive director of the Washington Student Association. Not only will the number of students who receive need grants stay flat but several other programs will be cut, and all students will be paying more to get a degree.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, says the increase in State Need Grant money was a big win. "No other program in state government got that kind of net increase in real funding," he said.
There were some changes to state law that eventually will boost aid money, including the newly formed Opportunity Scholarship Program, a public-private partnership to raise money for students majoring in high-demand programs such as health care and technology.
On Monday, Boeing and Microsoft each kicked in $25 million to begin the scholarship and endowment program, which also is receiving $5 million from the state. The program has a goal of raising $1 billion by the end of the decade, and will help middle-class students as well.
Still, several other student-aid programs took a hit:
• The State Work Study program, which this year helped about 7,600 undergraduate and graduate students work their way through school in jobs related to their field of study. There's only enough money to help about 2,500 students next year.
• The Washington Scholars program, which rewards high-school students in the top 1 percent of their class with merit scholarships if they go to a Washington public or private college or university. This year's winners received a letter of congratulations but no money.
• The Washington Award for Vocational Excellence, which gives two-year merit scholarships for outstanding vocational students. It also lost funding.
The Legislature approved a 16 percent annual increase in tuition for the state's three largest universities for the next two years, and increases of 11 to 14 percent per year for the state's other two- and four-year schools.
And a new state law signed Monday by Gov. Chris Gregoire gives the state's four-year schools the authority to set even higher tuition rates, going beyond what the Legislature has approved.
"The cost (of tuition) has increased to the point where somebody who doesn't have significant backing from their family will go into debt," Bogatay said.
The same bill that gives schools tuition-setting authority also requires schools to set aside more money for financial aid. Under the legislation, schools must set aside at least 4 percent of tuition — or 5 percent, if they opt for tuition increases above those set by the Legislature — to pay for financial aid for students who can't afford it.
State financial aid is a small but important piece of the financial-aid pie for students, accounting for 12 percent of all aid Washington students received in 2009-10. About 68 percent of financial aid that year came from the federal government, and the rest from other sources. Most of the federal money — about 70 percent — was in the form of loans.
Iris Maute-Gibson, a junior political-science major at Western Washington University, qualified for both the State Need Grant and State Work Study, but last year received one-fourth of the grant money she had received in the two previous years — even though her family's income hadn't changed. To qualify, a family of four must make $54,500 or less a year.
She took out a student loan and worked 30 hours a week during the school year to make ends meet last year. She doesn't know what will happen this fall: "I still haven't heard back from the financial-aid office," she said.
The loss of work-study money will hit graduate students hard, because work study is the only state financial aid they're eligible for. Proponents say work study is especially valuable because the jobs often are like internships.
Maute-Gibson, for example, worked in the state Attorney General's office. But she doesn't know if she'll get a work-study job next year.
"It's financial aid, but you do get an opportunity to work at pretty great places," said Nick Muy, a University of Washington student who is working on his master's in public administration. Muy got a job doing business analysis at Avanade, a business-technology company with a Seattle office. The money he earned paid one-third of the cost of his room and board for the year.
Knowing that work-study funding was up in the air, Muy snagged a research-assistant position at UW for next year, which gives him a tuition waiver and a stipend. But those positions are few and far between.
Because the four-year schools have only just been granted the right to set tuition, students don't know what the bill will be for next year.
The incoming freshman class at UW received preliminary financial-award information in April. Revised award amounts will be coming in July, after the Board of Regents sets tuition, said Kay Lewis, director of financial aid.
"What I tell students right now is to hang in there with us," she said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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