Know what the real college admissions scandal is? Not the revelation last week that rich people can scheme and bribe to get their precious progeny into elite universities. That’s been going on for ages, for as long as schools had buildings that wealthy donors could attach their names to in exchange for — wink, wink — favors.
Rather, what’s alarming is the continued pricing out of a college education for those lower- and middle-income students who find themselves either saddled with years of loan debt or simply bereft of the means, even with such loans, to get a post-secondary education.
That’s a slow-burning scandal that doesn’t make splashy headlines because it doesn’t involve nefarious activities of celebrities and hedge-fund CEOs. But throughout the country, including Washington state, prohibitive tuitions keep deserving students from achieving degrees that children of the well-to-do seemingly count as a birth rite.
In this session, though, the Legislature, with Gov. Jay Inslee’s backing, is working on a bill that will at least open the hallowed halls of academia to the neediest aspiring college students. The Senate last week passed SB 5393, which changes the name (from Need Grant to College Promise Scholarship) of the program and its parameters for funding. It guarantees full scholarships for students whose families make 110 percent of the federal poverty level or less – about $28,000 a year for a family of four.
It’s only fair that the students with the highest need — the program serves more than 68,000 students — get the first shot at the state’s pool of scholarship grant money.
Currently, under Need Grant provisions, students from families whose income dips below 70 percent of the median income level are eligible for money approved during each budget cycle. But when the funding well runs dry, students are left out. Last year, more than 18,000 qualified students were left waiting and wanting and forced to go the dicey student-loan route if they wanted to matriculate.
If enacted, the new College Promise Scholarship, which uses the same funds as in previous years, would weigh the dispersal of funds heavily toward need, with “guaranteed” scholarships for those at the 110 percent below median income threshold. Any funds left over after allotting scholarships to those students would be distributed to other low-income students above that 110-percent level on a sliding scale based on family income.
It is not a perfect plan, and it certainly won’t ease the debt students from middle-class families face. But it’s a leg up for students who feel tethered by the direst financial circumstances. As the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, said after passage, “In today’s economy, a college education is more important than ever as a path to middle-class security, and an educated population is crucial to keeping our economy humming.”
Indeed, having an educated workforce is crucial to the state’s economy. A recent report by the Washington Roundtable, a policy center, estimated that the state will expect to hire 740,000 workers in the next five years, of which 590,000 will require a post-secondary (college or technical training and certification) education. But the state reports only 30 percent of high school graduates in Washington will go on to earn a post-secondary degree.
At a time when the Legislature has taken major steps to bulk up K-12 education by implementing mandated McCleary Decision funding — yet still will be called upon to tweak that plan in this session, while also addressing a dearth in special-education support — higher education has become something of an afterthought.
According to a 2017 survey by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Washington state’s per-student spending is going backward — dropping from $8,000 a year in 2008 to $6,982 in 2017. The state’s per capita spending ranks in the bottom third in the nation, the report shows.
Which is curious, because what’s the use of improving the state’s high school graduation rates if about 70 percent of grads fail to continue their education for a chance to land one of those 590,000 higher-paying jobs requiring degrees?
College is not for everyone, of course, but everyone who wants to go to college should be able to do so without unbearable financial burdens haunting them into adulthood. The aptly-named College Promise Scholarship enables those in the lowest income bracket to envision a promising future with a good job and little debt.
Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.