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New Washington College Grant will also be available for students to use at private colleges

Curtis Cronn
Seattle Pacific University/Flickr
Students will be able to use the new Washington College Grant at private colleges such as Seattle Pacific University in addition to public higher-education institutions.

Washington lawmakers voted to make public college or university tuition free for students who come from families earning less than about $50,000 a year. That will become a guarantee starting in the 2020-21 school year.

They also expanded eligibility for the grant, so students from families that earn up to about $90,000 will qualify for partial tuition assistance.

Officials at private colleges and universities said it’s good news for them, too.

Isiaah Crawford, president of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, said students can use the grant at the school of their choice. That includes private, not-for-profit universities such as the University of Puget Sound, public higher education institutions and apprenticeship programs. The amount of the grant is set to correspond with tuition at public institutions.

“The beauty of it from our perspective is that it really focuses on the needs of students,” Crawford said. “It’s flexible.”

The new program, called the Washington College Grant, replaces the State Need Grant, which was aimed at low-income students but didn't have sufficient legislative funding to cover all eligible young people. This year, 18,000 students didn’t receive grants because of that funding shortfall.

Private colleges have used their own financial aid resources to try to help low-income students afford higher education. Now that more students will be able to count on tuition assistance from the state, Crawford said the University of Puget Sound may be able to allocate financial aid to additional students.

Officials at other local private colleges welcomed the state’s boost in financial aid.

“It’s a wonderful investment the state has made because many of those students did not have access to governmental need grant dollars,” said Jordan Grant, associate vice president for enrollment operations and student financial services at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian university in Seattle’s North Queen Anne neighborhood.

Grant said about 400 students at SPU receive state need grants, but an additional 200 students this year qualified and didn’t receive that state funding.

In recent years, students and families have focused more on college affordability, and that has put pressure on private colleges to offer bigger discounts on tuition. Grant said private colleges will have to spread the message that the new program allows many low-income students to attend private institutions tuition free, when combined with other state, federal and college scholarships.

Mike Frechette, dean of enrollment management and student financial services at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, said PLU is examining whether the university can offer more full-tuition scholarships because the state will be providing more financial aid. But he acknowledged that PLU will have to work to let prospective students know about the financial aid options.

“I think we will have to probably expand some of our marketing efforts of our full-tuition scholarship opportunities as well, so that students are aware that these opportunities exist not only at public institutions in the state of Washington but that this new funding in the Washington College Grant program is something that can be used at private institutions,” Frechette said.

Officials at private colleges said they hope the extra financial aid from the state will help increase the rate of Washington high school graduates who go to college. That rate is about 50 percent, putting Washington in the bottom quartile of states.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.