Bill would expand tuition waivers

By Chloe Wilhelm - Staff Reporter

Free tuition will be available for low-income students if a new bill being debated in the state Senate becomes law.

Substitute Senate Bill 6101 would create the Evergreen Free College Program to provide free college tuition and fees for eligible students seeking a bachelor's degree, associates degree, or certificate.

The bill would establish a student success program that would provide students "with a quarter-long student success course that teaches essential skills for college success," according to a report by the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy on the effectiveness of the program and changes in enrollment and completion rates would also be provided.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.

It successfully passed the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee by a vote of 6-3.

Now the bill is in the Ways and Means Committee, which considers the state's budget and how much the bill would cost.

Maggie Yuse, legislative assistant for Sen. Ranker, said the Legislature has introduced programs in the past to help students who need financial aid.

"This bill builds on those initiatives and ensures that eligible students receive grants to fund the rest of tuition and fees," she said.

The Evergreen Free College Program would be phased in over several years, and would eventually allow students to receive free tuition and fees for up to 12 quarters.

The program would be coordinated by the Washington Student Achievement Council, which also administers the State Need Grant and College Bound Scholarship.

The bill would provide tuition assistance to a significant number of students.

Eligible students would also have to meet the requirements for the State Need Grant, which in 2017 supported an estimated 69,000 students in Washington.

Despite this, at least 25 percent of eligible students do not receive the grant due to a lack of funding.

To be eligible for the program, students must be a resident of Washington state, currently enrolled in a higher education institution, and have completed the necessary financial aid forms, FAFSA or WAFSA, each year to determine eligibility.

After a student earns 45 credits, they must maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher to remain in the program.

Eligible students must also have an income less than 70 percent of Washington's median income, which is currently $56,835.

The program will be available in public colleges across the state, but will exclude private colleges.

"This bill has a large cost associated with it, and it may not be able to receive full funding," Yuse said.

"Additionally, this bill is only for public schools, and private institutions have expressed concerns that this will funnel students away from their colleges," she said.

Despite this, Yuse is supportive of the bill.

"[The program] will ensure that everyone in Washington, regardless of their background or life story, has access to college," Yuse said. "I am excited to see bipartisan support for finding a pathway for all children to achieve college success, meaningful careers and full lives."

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