Washington State’s higher education system is under pressure to grow capacity and improve results. University presidents say they need to increase certificate and degree attainment, and other student academic performance indicators. Lawmakers are interested in budget incentives tied to degree completion rates. They also want to see better academic and financial counseling, more effective workforce development, and greater K-12 rigor to ensure college readiness. All this sets the stage in the state legislature’s current biennial budget session for a close look at whether the system needs more money, and if so, how it would best be spent.
Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed 2017-19 biennial budget includes $4.06 billion in higher ed operating funds. That is $500 million more than the $3.56 billion allocated for that purpose in the enacted 2015-17 budget. The new higher ed capital budget proposal by Inslee is nearly $704 million, $83 million less than $787 million for that, last time around.
Expanding the State Need Grant
Inslee’s key policy-level investments in higher ed focus on ensuring more students can go to public colleges in Washington. The biggest single such expenditure proposed in his higher ed operating budget is $146 million for boosting State Need Grant (SNG) funding to lower-income families. This would increase total SNG students served to 84,000, up from 70,000. To qualify, a students’ family must earn less than 70 percent of the state’s median household income. In 2015, that was $64,129, according to the U.S. Census Bureau data.
The Governor’s higher ed operating budget also includes $56.4 million that would be spent to freeze undergraduate tuition for public higher ed institutions over the next two years.
Lawmakers have some ideas as well. HB 1214 would change the funding formula for both SNG and College Bound (CB) scholarship money to help stretch it further with incentives for more students to choose two-year community technical colleges over pricier four-year public institutions.
This would expand the pool of beneficiaries by 12,000 more students each year, beginning in 2022, according to prime sponsor State Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-47). He is joined by co-sponsors including State Reps. Eric Pettigrew (D-37), Mike Sells (D-38), Larry Haler (R-8) and Dick Muri (R-28).
24,000 Eligible, Yet Unserved
In the 2015-16 academic year, 24,000 students were eligible for SNG awards but did not receive them due to a lack of funding, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC).
Currently, SNG award amounts are determined by what school the student attends, and his or her family’s income, according to a staff presentation to the House Higher Education Committee. For the 2016-17 academic year, a grant recipient attending a public four-year institution could receive a maximum of $9,369 under the grant. For Community or Technical College (CTC) students, they could claim up to $3,541.
Under HB 1214, students receiving SNG money or a CB scholarship for the first time, and who have earned less than 90 quarter credits or 60 semester hours, would be awarded a maximum at the lower CTC rate. That would be regardless of whether they attend a two-year or four-year school. Students in their third and fourth years would get the higher rate.
Funding Formula Rework
Hargrove on Wednesday, January 25 told the House Higher Education Committee that the current funding formula causes some students to get a larger portion of available award money than what is currently feasible. That means fewer awards are available for other eligible students. “Imagine there are four students standing in front of you,” he said. “Right now, we are funding three state need grants for them…three of them are going to the University of Washington, one of them, sorry you go home, you get nothing.”
If more students are completing their first two years at less-costly community and technical colleges, then transferring to four-year schools, the dollars will go further, Hargrove said. “With the passage of this bill, all four of them can graduate from the University of Washington with a University of Washington diploma and…it has cost the state nothing more than what we are spending today.”
Rachelle Sharpe, WSAC’s acting Executive Director told the committee she had concerns with the unintended consequences of the bill. She said, “We very much appreciate the intent to serve more eligible students in the program…we know also that we have a well-respected and robust public two-year system in our state, however one of the tenets of the state need grant program which is described in statute is student choice. The program permits the student to select the postsecondary option that best fits their needs and their academic and career goals.”
The bill has not yet been scheduled for possible executive action in the House Higher Education Committee. As for Inslee’s proposed higher ed operating and capital budgets, they will have to be reconciled with counter proposals coming in the following weeks from the House and the Senate, as part of the larger biennial budget process.