A proposal to make Washington’s community and technical colleges tuition-free was met with both approval and criticism from Clark County lawmakers and Clark College President Bob Knight.
Last month, state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, introduced legislation that would implement the Washington Promise program, a program that would grant free tuition for any eligible Washington resident obtaining a two-year degree.
“The community college system in this state is one of the best in the country, and it really prepares students for careers or for transfer to four-year institutions,” Jayapal said. “But the cost of tuition is still a barrier for too many people. If we remove that barrier, our state will be on the fast-track to a stronger economy.”
State Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas agrees that college expenses must be reduced, but poses a question: if students aren’t paying for their education, who is?
According to Jayapal, the cost of the program is estimated to range anywhere from $100 to $125 million, depending on the amount of student participation, but she said a source of funding has not yet been identified.
State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver said there is a need to look at tax reform and identify a source of funding specifically for the program.
“We can’t continue to cut and expect that we’re going to meet all of our responsibilities,” Cleveland said.
Alishia Topper, a Vancouver council member, said that if education is a top priority to Washington, the state needs to take action. She said new revenue from marijuana excise taxes could be put towards education and public safety.
Topper said the sponsors of the bill will have difficulty convincing other legislators to prioritize funding higher education over K-12.
“We haven’t been able to do it in the past, so I think the funding piece will be hard,” Topper said.
“It’s like a promise we can’t keep,” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in an article published by the Columbian. “And I’m gravely concerned about students not having skin in the game. … It’s not really free. Someone is paying for it, and we don’t place as much value on it.”
Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, understands the worry over a lack of student motivation.
“I have personal knowledge of parents who pay for tuition and books, and young people who blew withdrawal deadlines when they were too immature and distracted to attend, work and communicate,” Wylie said. “I would hate to see the state end up in the role of parents by paying for a college slot that isn’t used.”
Knight said he supports the idea of free tuition but shares similar reservations to legislators. He said enrollment rates would increase, but the current struggle is about low completion rates.
“Let’s make sure there’s skin in the game for the student that’s coming here, otherwise it could be a lot of wasted money,” Knight said.
According to the original state Senate bill, residents cannot already have a bachelor’s degree and must apply for state or federal aid during the year that they are accepted into a two-year degree program. If the student maintains a 2.0 GPA, they remain eligible for aid up to four years after first receiving the grant, or upon completion of 120 credits.
State Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, recommends raising the GPA requirements to a 2.5 minimum and reducing the eligibility time frame to three years, to keep students motivated.
Topper said she doesn’t see students not being motivated as a problem.
“With K-12, you go to high school. It’s free,” Topper said. “Kids are still getting high school diplomas.”
Topper said that the major barriers faced by people in poverty are financial.
“I believe that if someone goes through the application process to fill out the FAFSA or the Washington State Need Grant and they’re committed to go through the enrollment process, they are already in a mindset that education is something that will kind of lift them out of poverty, and give them more opportunities for employment,” Topper said.
Jayapal said helping the state’s workforce will be one benefit of the program’s implementation. She cited national statistics that estimate 30 percent of job openings will require some college or an associate’s degree by 2020, with another 35 percent requiring a bachelor’s degree. The same data shows that by 2018, 67 percent of all Washington jobs are going to require some post-secondary education.
Bill Belden, vice president of Student Affairs, said that Clark currently has the capacity for a boost in enrollment. He said that the challenge for any college is to to balance enrollment with completion.
“The money is contingent upon maintaining a good GPA, choosing a course and staying with that,” Belden said. “We know that students need to stay on track and finish their credentials once they get into college. Otherwise, the education doesn’t have a lot of meaning if they don’t actually complete their goal.”
A new funding model, set to take effect in July, will fund Washington community and technical colleges based on enrollment, according to Belden. With an influx of students, Clark would receive additional funding to pay for extra classes, faculty and staff to meet student needs.
“Even if this bill isn’t successful, I think it’s important to start having the conversation about how we’re going to advance the working class in our state,” Topper said. “For me, education is the pathway out of poverty. It’s the pathway to a better economic future.”
Last year, President Barack Obama proposed the idea of nationwide tuition-free community college, with hopes to make it “as free and universal as a high school is today.”
“I would eventually like to see us move towards community college that’s free for everyone,” Cleveland said. “I would like for us move more toward the model that President Obama outlined.”