Meeting Business Needs Through State Need Grant Reform

Meeting Business Needs Through State Need Grant Reform
SB 5820 would add a minimum grade point average requirement of 2.0 to the State Need Grant, and encourage recipients to earn degrees in high-demand fields. Opponents argue that making the grant "merit-based" would leave more economically disadvantaged students without a college path. Photo: Western Washington University

A new approach to distributing the State Need Grant (SNG) would better align recipients to meeting business needs and increase degree completion in high-demand programs, according to proponents of SB 5820. The measure would add a minimum grade point average (GPA) eligibility requirement, which some lawmakers argue would motivate higher education students to greater outcomes. Stakeholders within higher education institutions, however, argue it might leave more students without scholarships. The bill was voted out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, February 24 and sent to Rules.

Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17) told colleagues last week that the measure would motivate students to stay engaged in their studies. She is prime sponsor of the bill.

“We’re always looking for ways to encourage students…to get a degree that will get them a job that will serve them well when they get out,” she said. “We’re going to modify the grant program…but I think we need to incentivize students to do better.”

Cosponsors include State Sens. Barbara Bailey (R-10), Dino Rossi (R-45), and Hans Zeiger (R-25).

Incentivizing Greater Academic Achievement

Under the bill, the responsibility of distributing and specifying grant award criteria for SNG would shift from the Washington Student Achievement Council’s (WSAC) Office of Student Financial Assistance to the writers of the operating budget.

Grant funding would be awarded contingent on whether or not it promotes degree completion and high-demand degree program enrollment. To be eligible for the initial award, recipients must have a 2.25 GPA or higher. The GPA requirement would then increase to 2.5 for additional renewals. This form of incentivizing is already present in the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, which encourages students to continue their education at the reward of larger scholarship awards.

Students would be exempt from the GPA requirement if they recently had a child, are going through an adoption or foster care process, must care for a family member with a serious health condition, or are undergoing a serious condition themselves.

Governor Jay Inslee in his proposed 2017-19 operating budget set aside $146 million for expanding SNG to reach more students and their families. The additional funds would serve an estimated 84,000 students, up from 70,000. Earlier this month, lawmakers pushed the importance of stretching SNG funds to reach as many students as possible.

Study: Low Dropout Rate Among Grant Students

The grant has shown to positively affect student retention in higher ed. According to a 2014 Washington Student Achievement Council report, between 94 and 98 percent of Washington SNG recipients entering four-year institutions re-enrolled in the spring, and between 84 and 92 percent enrolled again for the following semester.

However, others such as Arlen Harris cautioned the committee about potential negative impacts of the legislation for the state’s community and technical colleges (CTCs). He is Legislative Director for the State Board for CTCs.

At the Tuesday, February 21 Senate Ways and Means committee he said, “This would directly impact about 5,200 students at our” CTCs. “There are other things that happen to students’ lives beyond the exemptions stated in the bill, whether it’s 40 percent of our students who work” or those who “lose their job because they are balancing a full-time” classwork “load and a full-time job.”

Concerns Over Stricter Grade Standards

On Thursday, February 16, many higher education institution stakeholders offered suggestions to the Senate Higher Education Committee for preventing unintended consequences of the measure.

Rachelle Sharpe, WSAC’s acting Executive Director, testified that SNG requirements should not be more strict that graduation requirements, federal aid and many other scholarships, which require a GPA of 2.0.

Sharpe said, “We worry that changing the GPA, rather than serving as an incentive for students, might disincentive them from taking rigorous and challenging coursework. It could heighten the existing opportunity and achievement gaps for certain populations.”

Under the current version of the bill, there is no pathway for a student’s re-eligibility for the grant monies once their GPA drops, according to Sharpe, as well as no specification on whether the GPA required is per term, annually, or cumulative.

Sealander: Grant Should Be Based On Need, Not Merit

Also to consider is the impact on the College Bound Scholarship and the effect on current 2017-18 year scholarships, she added.

Nora Sealander, Legislative Liaison for the Associated Students of Western Washington University, expressed concern last week that the bill would decrease the amount of students served.

“The GPA standards in this proposal would take a program that is need-based and make it increasingly merit-based,” she said. “I believe that the standards in place to maintain good academic standards are sufficient and should not be tinkered with. The students on campus believe that the priority should be fully funding this program so that the 24,000 eligible but unserved students have access to grant funding.”

According to State Sen. John Braun (R-20), SB 5820 would be used as a vehicle towards fully funding the need grant. He is Chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

At the Thursday, February 24 executive session of the bill, Braun told colleagues that accomplishing that feat will require “a combination of reasonable reform…and “to make sure we have a clear path that continues our generous program, but also recognizes that we haven’t been able to serve all students and we should make a rational choice on which ones we are able to serve, and not just leave it to chance.”

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