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Committees hear tuition-free college, financial aid support bills

January 26, 2024 by SBCTC Communications

House and Senate policy committees continued their work this week hearing bills with potentially big impacts on colleges and college-going students in Washington state. On dockets were bills that would make college tuition free for graduates of the state's public high schools and expanding a financial aid outreach pilot throughout the state.

Community and technical college students, trustees and presidents were on the hill yesterday, visiting their representatives and senators to highlight system priorities this legislative session. That included supporting additional Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degrees, expanding climate solutions curriculum, capital budget requests, and impacts of legislation at colleges.

Digital literacy legislation heard in House higher education committee

Jan. 19 — A bill supporting digital literacy and information technology-related careers for historically marginalized people and communities was topic of last week’s House Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development Committee. If passed, HB 2360 would create the Washington Digital Empowerment and Workforce Inclusion — or DEWI — Act. Included in the act is creation of:

  • The Digital Empowerment and Workforce Inclusion office at the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board.
  • The Digital Empowerment and Workforce Inclusion Committee.
  • A Technology Access Devices for Job Seekers Fund, if funded.
  • A Washington Digital Literacy Credential Program at the Washington State University Global Campus, if funded.
  • The Advance Equity in Information Technology Carers Mentorship program, if funded.
  • The Reentry and Targeted Community Workforce Development program, if funded.

“We've invested millions of dollars to build out an educational pipeline for IT jobs, and we believe that everybody should be able to have access to that,” Rep. Vandana Slatter, the bill’s prime sponsor and chair of the committee, said. “We want a diversity of people who can access these jobs: BIPOC women, veterans, people with disabilities. We also have to face the fact that our employers face a serious IT skilled worker [shortage]. So how do we close those gaps? The DEWI act is designed to close disparity gaps in IT-enabled employment across the state and encourage technology employers to open their doors to Washington's untapped pool. This doesn't just mean that you have a specific credential but that you actually have skills.”

Will Durden, the State Board’s director for basic education for adults, testified in favor of the bill, giving the committee a brief history of technology use in the classroom. He told committee members that digital literacy in basic education English language instruction began in 2013 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While incorporating technology was an outlier at the time, it’s now understood that digital literacy skills are essential for student success.

“The pandemic accelerated our use of digital tools, but it also taught us to catch up to the necessity of teaching basic skills in all our programs. Fast forward back to today, we need our fully fledged standards and curricula that guide our instruction and lead to a digital literacy credential with labor market value, just as this bill describes,” Durden said. “In partnership with the Workforce Board, we believe the development of an employer informed digital literacy credential will create more access for Washington residents to opportunities in the digital and technology-enabled world of work.”

Senate Human Services hears corrections education financial aid bill

Jan. 23 — The Senate Human Services Committee at its hearing Tuesday took up a bill that would require incarcerated individuals apply for federal and state financial aid to pay for their education program. Under SB 5953, the Department of Corrections may require students to use financial aid for high school diploma or equivalency programs, vocational programs, or other programs required for the student’s reentry plan. DOC would be required to pay for costs not covered by financial aid.

“In 2022, the federal government allowed access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals, so we believe taking advantage of this new opportunity will allow us to leverage federal dollars and also dramatically expand the access to educational programs across the system statewide,” Sen. Claire Wilson, the bill’s prime sponsor and chair of the committee, said. “5953 would improve the ability of incarcerated individuals to transition successfully into their communities upon release and also by extending eligibility for Pell Grants to be used at all correctional facilities. We believe, and I believe, that continuing to offer and expanding the offerings to individuals within our institutions is a safety issue for not only them, but also for those that work inside the institution.”

Hanan Al-Zubaidy, associate director for corrections education with the State Board, asked committee members consider amending the bill so students would not be required to use Pell Grants for corrections programs.

“Mandating utilization of the Pell Grant and a Pell First model forces the student to utilize an already limited funding source that has a limited lifetime eligibility to select from only a handful of programs that are available to them,” she said. “Our college campuses do not currently practice the mandate of usage of Pell Grants but rather provide the student with the option to utilize various payment options available to them. This flexibility allows for a student to explore different avenues for financing their education, keeping in mind individual circumstances and needs.”

Tuition-free college bills heard in House higher education committee

Jan. 23 — Tuition-free college was on the table at Tuesday’s House Postsecondary Education and Workforce Development Committee hearing. HB 2309, if approved, would provide eligible students up to 45 tuition-free community or technical college credits. Students would have to be graduates of a public Washington state high school or equivalency program, enroll in an eligible community or technical college program within a year of graduation, and not have previously earned an associate degree. Committee members also heard testimony on HB 2374, which would provide up to 90 tuition-free community or technical college credits. That bill would also require student success and advising courses, a basic attendance grant, wraparound services, and notifications to high school juniors and seniors.

Rep. Steve Bergquist, HB 2309’s prime sponsor, told committee members that the bill is intended to help students who think they can’t afford education beyond high school. Bergquist, who represents the 11th Legislative District in western King County which includes Renton Technical College’s service area, hoped the legislation would expand on the Renton Promise Program. The program, begun in May 2023 as a partnership between the college and the Renton School District, provides full tuition and fees to the college for up to two years for graduating seniors.

“The conversations we've had with students that took advantage show us that many of them were not planning on going to any school after high school yet, but for the fact that the Renton Promise program was there,” Bergquist said. “This bill builds off of that by saying every student in our state that graduates with a GED® or from high school has a year to enter a community or technical college in their region and it's paid for regardless of income.”

Testifying on behalf of the community and technical college system were Mollie Kuwahara, a State Board legislative intern and Tacoma Community College student, Paul Francis, executive director of the State Board, Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, chancellor of the Seattle Colleges District, and Josaphine Saccio-Devine, a State Board legislative intern and Lower Columbia College student.

Kuwahara pointed out that while more students are graduating from high school, fewer are enrolling in college.

“It seems counterintuitive that as high school graduation rates increase nation and statewide, postsecondary enrollment has been slowly declining for the last several years. I believe postsecondary tuition affordability contributes to those trends,” she said. “By passing House Bill 2309, the largest barrier for students paying tuition will be removed from Washington high school graduates for their first 45 credits.”

Francis cited Washington Roundtable data showing that state employers will create 373,000 new jobs by 2026, with 70% expected to require a postsecondary credential, degree, apprenticeship certification, or certificate.

“This bill is important for employers to count on our graduates for a strong workforce, as well as for our four-year universities who welcome our transfer students,” he said.

Francis stressed the need for the legislation to receive full funding so colleges wouldn’t have to cut programs to pay for additional students.

“As these bills move forward, we'd love to work with you to address questions about financing definitions, intersection with other aid programs, and more,” he said. “Full funding will be needed to make sure colleges can serve an influx of students without having to cut programs and services within their lean budgets.”

Rimando-Chareunsap spoke about the success of the Seattle Promise Program, which provides Seattle public school graduates with 90 tuition-free credits and student support at any of the Seattle colleges.

“Seattle Promise students outperform two and three year averages of the Seattle Colleges’ general student population and the state average, and our two-year completion rates also outpaced the national average,” she said, speaking to the success of programs like the ones that would be created under HB 2309 and HB 2374.

Echoing Kuwahara’s testimony, Saccio-Devine told representatives that the bill would help relieve students’ stress about paying for post-high school education.

“I've noticed that many students lose their drive as they begin to feel that there's no reason for finishing high school if they won't be able to afford to continue their education. By covering 45 credits or one year of an associate or transfer degree and funds for wraparound services like textbooks, fees, and cost of living, this guarantee can reduce the stress of fiscal burden of pursuing a postsecondary education,” she said. “I hope this program can be established so that more Washington state students can have access to education despite the financial boundaries.”

Financial aid application completion pilot report, expansion bill heard in Senate Higher Education Committee

Jan. 24 — Strategies to help students apply for financial aid topped the agenda of Wednesday’s Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee’s hearing. Committee members held a work session on a financial aid completion pilot program followed by a hearing on making that program permanent.

Financial aid outreach pilot program work session

Yokiko Hayashi-Saguil, a student services policy associate with the State Board, Suzanne Ames, president of Peninsula College, and Melanie Casciato, director of student recruitment at Columbia Basin College, reported on a financial aid completion pilot program created in 2022 with the passage of HB 1835. The effort partnered colleges in Educational Service Districts 114 on the Olympic Peninsula and 123 in central and southeast Washington, districts with the lowest Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates in the state over the previous three years, with area high schools. The bill required the colleges — Olympic and Peninsula in ESD 114 and Big Bend, Columbia Basin and Walla Walla in ESD 123 — to hire outreach specialists to work directly with high school students and their families with purpose of increasing FAFSA and Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA) completion rates.

With outreach teams in place for the 2022-23 school year, FAFSA completion rates rose three to eight percentage points for each of the participating colleges. WASFA completion rates showed similar increases.

“This pilot’s working,” Hayashi-Saguil said.

The key to the pilot’s success were the relationships built by the outreach specialists.

“Student by student, family by family, the staff created relationships, and this is really key, given the fear that many individuals have over giving up so much confidential information to the federal government, not to mention the complexity of doing so,” Ames said. “I'm really confident the success rates will continue to increase now that the model’s built.”

College outreach specialists worked with 5,151 high school seniors and 7,240 total students in the pilot’s one year.

While the intent behind the pilot was to increase FAFSA and WASFA completion rates, colleges realized those conversations created opportunities to talk about students’ post-high school plans.

“What does that mean for our community? It means we are educating on what postsecondary education can look like and the various forms and pathways from a community and technical college. We're able to talk about a community college, technical degrees, certificates and that university pathway,” Casciato said. “This focus on financial aid was just the spearhead to the conversation of helping our students really dream big about their postsecondary abilities and options.”

Hayashi-Saguil highlighted lessons learned, including challenges faced by colleges and outreach specialists, including lack of physical space, high school firewalls not allowing access to financial aid form websites, and data tracking limitations. Overall, though, the pilot showed the importance of the relationships between outreach specialists and students.

“It's high-touch services. It's through that model of individualized support coming from somebody who's a trusted advisor. Nothing replaces that,” she said.

Expanding financial aid outreach program

Building on its work session, Sen. T'wina Nobles introduced a bill that would expand statewide the financial aid outreach pilot program. If passed, SB 6254 would create a program at every community and technical college to reach every educational service district, expanding the outreach specialist role to include student persistence. It would also allow the State Board to contract with groups like community based and tribal organizations to help with outreach efforts.

“The goal is to help students to be successful and access as much financial aid as possible so that they can afford their higher education,” Nobles said, noting that Washington state ranks 47th in the country for FAFSA completion.

“While we've made significant strides in making financial aid more accessible to our students, this bill represents the next crucial step in ensuring that the doors to postsecondary education remain wide open for all of our students,” she said.

Joyce Loveday, president of Clover Park Technical College, said that many students don’t believe they qualify for financial aid and applying is a barrier to enrolling in a college program.

“We work hard at Clover Park to support students through the process, but more support is needed to help young people and their families see the potential and understand the processes required to gain financial support,” she said. “Assistance from a trusted adult with technical expertise about financial aid is extremely helpful to students.”

Celva Boon, director of student aid and scholarships at Clover Park, told committee members that students cite cost as the top reason they do not enroll in education past high school.

“For many families, the process of applying for financial aid is confusing and scary process, which turns into a persistent barrier to actually getting the aid that is available into their hands,” Boon said, saying that once a student completes a financial aid form, they’re more likely to enroll in a postsecondary program. “The more that we can build the financial aid expertise among the trusted adults that students turn to, we will do better for the students in the state of Washington.”

Jamie Traugott, director of dual credit and strategic enrollment initiatives at the State Board, thanked bill sponsors for including student persistence in the outreach specialist role.

“This early exposure to college and Career readiness helps high school students to better understand the ‘why’ behind completing their financial aid application and applying for admission,” she said.

Matthew Campbell, president of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, said the bill works to increase understanding while clearing confusion and misconceptions about financial aid.

“This legislation will support on-the-ground advocates who will expand — in particular — K-12 college partnerships and connect directly with potential students at the most crucial intersection: The moment when they can see and access the critical resources Washington has invested,” he said. “Ultimately this promises to continue to enrich our communities and the growing diverse workforce that is Washington's promise to the future.”

Melanie Casciato, the student recruitment director at Columbia Basin College, expanded on her testimony during the earlier work session that working with students on financial aid will lead to work on a student’s post-high school plans.

“We created this emphasis on the education of financial aid conversation, which organically translated into talking about educational pathways, majors and colleges,” she said. “I cannot emphasize enough that this conversation is essential, and growing financial aid completion rates equate to postsecondary enrollment that will feel our state's workforce.”

Testimony then turned to an outreach navigator and a high school senior. Masa Kawamura, an outreach and admissions specialist at South Puget Sound Community College and navigator at North Thurston High School and Timberline High School in the North Thurston School District, said that students with he works aren’t aware of financial aid option in Washington state.

“Many students come to me with no direction, and, at the end, they are applying for colleges. They’re filling out the FAFSA and believing that they actually can have a future,” Kawamura said.

Finally, Chris Gandy, a student at North Thurston High School, told committee members that working with Kawamura helped him figure out what he wanted to do in college.

“Masa’s really been someone that I can open up to and someone that I've been able to look to as a mentor. And that's really important, especially as a senior not having a whole ton of adults who are familiar with all of the processes like applying for college and deciding what you want to do after high school, so that’s been a really great opportunity,” he said.

Senate Early Learning hears bill supporting competency-based education

Jan. 25 — The Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee heard a bill Thursday that would support schools and students in competency-based education. If passed SB 6264 would require the State Board of Education to develop a competency-based education high school transcript as an alternative to a standard high school transcript. It would also require the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to adopt rules to authorize funding for students in competency-based education programs and create competencies aligned with state learning standards.

“It's truly individualized learning based on the foundation of equity and student empowerment,” Sen. Lisa Wellman, the bill’s prime sponsor and chair of the committee said of competency-based education. “[This bill] is starting the process of making some of those statewide-level system changes that will pave the way for successfully expanding this type of instruction model to more schools, integrating it with colleges and work, etc.”

Troy Goracke, a basic education for adults policy associate with the State Board, spoke in favor of the bill.

“This bill validates our colleges’ decade plus of experience offering competency-based high school completion through High School+ to Washington’s residents and will serve to further enhance that work,” he said. “We also look forward to the cross-education agency collaboration to enhance high school transcription with a competency-based education focus called for in the bill, which will improve Washington students’ educational records.”

Trustees confirmed by Senate

The Senate confirmed two trustees to the boards of their colleges this week:

Coming up next week

The first cutoff deadline of the legislative session arrives Wednesday when bills need to be approved by their policy committees. Work will then turn fiscal committees which will hear the monetary impacts of bills.

Last Modified: 1/30/24, 2:41 PM
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