The June 30 Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting featured a panel discussion with three high-performing students from very low-income backgrounds, who spoke on how important financial aid was to their success.
Prior to hearing the students’ stories, Board members heard a report from Rachelle Sharpe, director of student financial assistance, on the status of financial aid programs in Washington following passage of the 2011-13 budget.
Sharpe told the Board the Legislature has provided additional funding for the State Need Grant (SNG) program in an attempt to hold students at the lowest income levels harmless from tuition increases, which are ranging from 11 to 20 percent across the public institutions.
Even with the added funding, however, the SNG program still will not be able to serve more than 27,000 students who are enrolled and qualify for the program, she said. Just a few years ago, the SNG program was able to serve all but a few thousand of those who qualified.
In addition, the state extended a reduction in State Work Study program funding, first implemented in 2010, throughout the 2011-13 biennium – cutting the program’s appropriation $30 million. This reduction will result in 5,000 students not obtaining SWS jobs per year for the biennium.
Brier, 23, will complete a bachelor’s degree in journalism at WSU next spring with honors. She is the oldest of three children whose parents did not attend college, and had relatively little preparation or encouragement in this direction during high school. After working full time for two years while earning her associate degree, Brier took a hiatus from school in 2006 to regroup.
“I always knew I needed to complete my bachelor’s degree to be successful,” she told board members. But she couldn’t quite get over the hump to a four-year program, in part out of fear she would not be able to perform well enough to succeed if she had to work full time. Brier’s aid award dispelled these fears.
“When I opened the award letter I not only had enough money for tuition, I also could cover books, groceries, some gas, and other living expenses.” Brier reported her two sisters have also enrolled in college, following her example.
Angela, 37, grew up on the streets of Chicago in a rough neighborhood. Involved in gangs at an early age, she said earning a college degree simply was not a part of her future world view. But a gang leader, recognizing her intelligence and ability, encouraged her to go back to school.
“I would not be at Seattle University if not for financial aid. At 33 I got work study, which enabled me to begin my degree program. I have been so lucky to receive this support. I see the pain on students’ faces who have been told their aid was cut or eliminated,” Angela said.
She will receive her bachelor’s degree in sociology in spring 2012, and hopes to put her education and experience to use working with youth in gangs.
Alejandro, 22, grew up in a series of foster homes, never far from violence and uncertainty. He had received little instruction on how to be an adult when he was left to his own devices at 18, and faced the long-term possibility of a life on the streets.
“I had no parents or any kind of personal income to help me; no one to show me how to live,” he said. Despite this, he was intensely interested in bettering himself. Financial aid and work study provided just enough support to enable him to enroll at Seattle Central Community College.
“Financial aid changed everything. I was able to concentrate on my education, to sleep in a bed, not on the ground.” Alejandro is now a junior majoring in social work at the University of Washington and continues to have huge goals for his personal life.
Several Board members asked the students about how their peers were reacting to funding cuts and much higher tuition rates. The students indicated significant concern had been expressed about the cuts, especially about cuts to financial aid programs. They also noted that some rallies to protest the cuts had been held.
One student said funding cuts should be discussed more publicly in the future so their full impact can be made known to the state’s citizens. But another cautioned that protesting the cuts too vigorously might lead needy students to the conclusion that no financial aid is available.
“We don’t want to discourage students…there are still State Need Grant dollars and there are student financial aid programs outside these. And there is aid available from the institutions and from Pell Grants,” Brier said.
On the other hand, she continued, students need to advocate in a more public way for more funding for higher education, including financial aid funding.